Aaron Marc Stein / George Bagby / Hampton Stone
Inspector Schmidt by "George Bagby": Inspector Schmidt
| Ring Around a Murder | Dead on Arrival
| The Original Carcase | In Cold Blood
| Drop Dead | Coffin Corner
| Blood Will Tell
| Death Ain't Commercial | Scared to Death
| The Corpse With Sticky Fingers | Give the Little Corpse a Great Big Hand
| Dead Drunk | The Body in the Basket
| A Dirty Way To Die | Murder's Little Helper
| Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser
| Corpse Candle | Two in the Bush
Jeremiah X. Gibson by "Hampton Stone": Jeremiah X. Gibson
| The Corpse in the Corner Saloon
| The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still | The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends
| The Kid Who Came Home with a Corpse
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt by "Aaron Marc Stein": Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt
| Death Takes a Paying Guest
| Three - With Blood | Pistols for Two
| Mask for Murder | Moonmilk and Murder
Matt Erridge by "Aaron Marc Stein": Matt Erridge
| Sitting Up Dead
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Aaron Marc Stein
Inspector Schmidt novels:
Drop Dead (1949) (Chapters 1, 2, 4, end of 7, start and end of 8, second half of 9, 10)
Coffin Corner (1949) (Chapters 1, end of 4, start of 7)
Blood Will Tell (1950)
Death Ain't Commercial (1951) (Chapters 1-5, 10)
Give the Little Corpse a Great Big Hand (1953) (Chapters 1, 2)
The Body in the Basket (1954)
A Dirty Way To Die (1955)
Murder's Little Helper (1963) (Chapters 2, 3, first half of 4, 6, 7, start of 11, 12, last part of 14)
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt novels:
Death Takes a Paying Guest (1947) (Chapters 1-4, start of 5, second half of 9)
Three - With Blood (1950) (Chapters 1, 2, second half of 4, middle of 5)
Mask for Murder (1952) (Chapters 1-4, 7)
Moonmilk and Murder (1955) (Chapter 1)
The above is not a complete list of the author's works.
Rather, it consists of my picks of his best tales, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.
Aaron Marc Stein / George Bagby / Hampton Stone
Aaron Marc Stein was a prolific mystery novelist, publishing books under his own name, and as
"George Bagby" and "Hampton Stone". He wrote around 110 detective novels.
Commentary on Aaron Marc Stein:
- Mystery*File has a career overview and reminiscence by Francis M. Nevins,
and a review.
- And a bibliographical survey by Steve Lewis,
plus his reviews of I Could Have Died,
Guaranteed to Fade,
Country and Fatal,
The Original Carcase,
The Golden Creep,
Moonmilk and Murder,
- Marvin Lachman did an informative survey of the author for Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers.
- Jon L. Breen points out in a letter to Old-Time Detection #46 (Autumn 2017) that Stein
"was honored with a Grand Master Edgar from Mystery Writers of America, but like
several of his fellow recipients (Judson Philips/Hugh Pentecost, Baynard Kendrick, George Harmon Coxe)
he has fallen into comparative obscurity since his death. He deserves a rediscovery." (I agree!)
- Curtis Evans' articles are at
The Passing Tramp.
- A bibliography can be found at the
Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
As "George Bagby", he wrote a series about Inspector Schmidt, a New York City Homicide detective.
Links to the Van Dine School of Mystery Fiction
The books are vaguely Van Dine-ish in approach:
"I don't go in for descriptions of what police labs do and that sort of thing.
My books pretty much depend on the mental processes of the detective."
- Aaron Marc Stein, quoted in his New York Times obituary. Such a focus on detectives using thinking
to solve cases, is characteristic of the Intuitionist tradition of detective fiction.
The Van Dine School is a prominent part of that Intuitionist tradition.
- Like Van Dine, they take place in New York City.
- They sometimes take place among prosperous New Yorkers, with a background in the arts or show biz.
- Van Dine's disciple Ellery Queen once referred to the Van Dine followers as the
"Straightforward American school" of detective fiction. Bagby has a similar straightforward approach
as the other Van Dineans: the murder is committed right away, and the detective
investigates it throughout the rest of the book, with no elaborate digressions
or detours into personal lives, or action or suspense set-pieces.
- The investigation sets forth the crime scene, and the movements of the suspects
around it at various times.
- There are positive non-stereotyped portraits of minorities. Please see my list of
Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction,
which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
- Bagby shares the liberal politics generally found in the Van Dine School.
- The Van Dine novels are narrated by a self-effacing man named Van Dine;
a similar arrangement occurs in Van Dine follower Anthony Abbot's books.
The Babgy novels are similarly narrated by a fictitious writer named "George Bagby".
In scenes where the crime is being investigated, narrator Bagby is almost as invisible as
Van Dine's and Abbot's narrators. However, Inspector Schmidt and Bagby
regularly have two-person scenes where they discuss the case. Bagby
becomes much more of a presence in these episodes.
- The fictitious Bagby is a professional writer, and he narrates in a
literate prose style with occasional cultural allusions. This is not as
ornate as Van Dine's prose, but it does maintain a literate approach.
However, there are differences in the Bagby books from the Van Dine approach.
Inspector Schmidt is not a flamboyant genius - he is a "regular guy",
typical cop. And the stories maintain a certain tone of realism,
in showing life in New York City. This gives the Bagby novels a
"police procedural" quality. People who want to read a "realistic novel
of police investigation in a big city" can enjoy the Bagby novels as falling
into this paradigm.
There always was a police procedural aspect to the Van Dine school:
So Bagby's procedural approach can be seen as evolving from Van Dine tradition.
Ring Around a Murder
Ring Around a Murder (1936) is the second Inspector Schmidt mystery novel.
It's a mainly disappointing, minor book. It suffers from a nasty racial slur (first half of Chapter 1).
The main characters seem underdeveloped in this early book.
Both Schmidt and the narrator will seem more intelligent in later works than they do here.
Both will also seem better at their jobs: in later books Schmidt will seem more experienced
as a cop, in a seen-it-all way. And the writer-narrator will seem more erudite and
more like a literary intellectual. He also seems more like a professional writer.
Best Part: The Opening Investigation
Ring Around a Murder has two decent if small subplots: the footprints, and the fingerprints.
These are set forth in the book's best episode: the discovery and initial investigation
of the murder (second half of Chapter 1, first half of Chapter 2).
This episode, together with later bits that solve the mystery,
could have made a good short story. Instead, they are lost within a vast novel.
A later "discovery and initial investigation" of another murder is also solidly told (last part of Chapter 10).
These two sections concentrate strictly on the mystery puzzle, and are full of plot.
They also tell a bit about the layout of the house and grounds.
The suspects don't appear - only Schmidt and the narrator.
Mystery Plot: The Fingerprints
SPOILERS. Bagby comes up with an original puzzle: the complete absence of
fingerprints in the murder mansion (set forth in the middle of Chapter 2).
He also provides a logical solution (solved in the middle of Chapter 3).
The solution involves clothes: men's clothes are a long term Bagby interest.
Mystery Plot: The Footprints
The footprint mystery is unusual. It has aspects of an "impossible crime".
It is set forth at the book's start (second half of Chapter 1), solved at the end (last part of Chapter 15).
Footprints also play a role in Pistols for Two.
Mystery Plot: The Locked House
The footprint problem is linked to the book's other impossible crime:
how did the killer escape from the the locked house?.
This mystery comes to a legitimate but not too brilliant solution
(end of Chapter 10, last part of Chapter 15).
Entire buildings that are locked, as opposed to locked rooms,
were a staple of Carolyn Wells.
The blurb says that Ring Around a Murder "has the same combination of
comedy, action and baffling clues that made Bagby's Murder at the Piano a great popular success."
In other words, Bagby was being promoted by his publisher as an author of comedy-mysteries.
I don't recall such explicit promotions of Bagby as a comic writer, by his post-1945 publishers.
The eccentric, comic family members indeed mark Ring Around a Murder as a comic mystery novel.
Unfortunately, I found them more obnoxious than amusing.
When hunk Christopher gets his clothes wet in the snow, he takes them off to dry,
and takes a nude nap on the rug in front of the fireplace (middle of Chapter 6).
This happens off-stage - but is discussed suggestively by some women.
In a comedy scene, Schmidt mildly torments the hungover narrator, forcing him
to get dressed and accompany him on a case (first half of Chapter 1).
There is a slight undertone of dominance. The narrator even comically calls Schmidt a "sadist".
Ebenezer, known to everyone as Knees, is a drunk who is always making bitchy remarks.
Unlike many of the other suspects, he has no heterosexual love life. He might well be intended as
a "bitchy queen".
Suspect, eccentric elderly lady Beersheba Higley, is a collector of metalware, including rings and bottles.
Bagby's books show a long time interest in metalware. It is already present in the early
Ring Around a Murder.
Dead on Arrival
Dead on Arrival (1946) deals with a bizarre, decayed family who lead
isolated lives in a Manhattan brownstone. The characters are deliberately grotesque,
and the novel has a Gothic quality.
The book is not much fun.
This sort of introspective look at a reclusive family is not Bagby's "thing".
Bagby's other and better novels instead more often take an interest in the world around him.
Stein stopped publishing during 1944 and 1945, due to his military service in World War II.
Dead on Arrival, which appeared early in 1946, seems to be the first book
he published after the war.
Links to Carr
Aspects of Dead on Arrival recall John Dickson Carr.
Henry's extravagant conversation has a Carr-like feel (Chapter 2).
His discussion of sanity seems especially in the Carr tradition.
Terry Cromwell recalls the stalwart young heroes who run through Carr's novels.
The setting of Dead on Arrival recalls Carr's Death in Five Boxes (1938).
Both take place inside houses that are:
Dead on Arrival also resembles Death in Five Boxes, in that
it takes a long time and many chapters, before the reader learns what has been going on in the house.
- Cut-off from the big-city world around them, filled with bizarre events.
- Multi-storied, with a prominent staircase.
- Have back entrances that play a role in the plot.
A positive feature of Dead on Arrival is the unusual architecture of the brownstone (Chapter 1).
As is common in Bagby, this architecture involves a stairway.
It is also one of Bagby's odd rooms.
Unfortunately, the architecture doesn't really play a role in the mystery plot.
And it is mainly ignored after the opening chapter.
The Original Carcase
The Original Carcase (1946) centers on a family of rich New Yorkers
who collect antiques, and the antique dealer who supplies them.
This background among highbrow collectors is in the Van Dine school tradition.
The two places where the body is found have a surreal quality.
The opening (Chapters 1-5) tells a colorful tale. But the mystery never develops into a
clever puzzle plot.
SPOILER. The people and events behind the crime, turn out to have little
to do with the two families we meet in the opening chapters. The book presents the families
as the chief suspects, then later on has them unconnected to the killing.
This seems disappointing.
The opening describes reactions of crowds of people, to the discovery of the body.
We see crowds of party goers streaming in from a terrace, and later crowds
in a fashionable lobby. Bagby's books often have crowd scenes,
in which the reactions of the public to some event is made clear.
The crowds are often a "character", with their own public reaction to events.
The characters include two idealized young men who male bond,
ethnic John Bragioni and upper crust Ted Edwards. They were formerly Army buddies -
Bagby's male comrades often meet at their work (Chapters 1, 2).
During the war, circumstances, and Bragioni's accomplishments,
made Bragioni Ted Edwards' commanding officer. This helped develop what the book calls
Edwards' "hero worship" of Bragioni.
What is going on between Bragioni and Edwards is clearly romantic, at least
are far as Edwards' feelings go.
But it also has dimensions of political commentary. One might speculate that the war has broken down
the previously rigid class structure in which Edwards' family had lived,
placing him for the first time under the leadership of a man not from his elite social class.
The war is seen as a democratizing element, making possible a new equality in
Expertise and Male Bonding
The book mentions that part of Bragioni's appeal to Ted Edwards, is Bragioni's expert knowledge of
(unspecified) subjects that are important to young people of the day.
One wonders if this is an oblique way of referring to left-of-center political ideas.
One wishes there were more about this in the novel.
Expertise of all sorts is an important value in Bagby's fiction.
In The Original Carcase, it helps fuel one man's passionate devotion to another.
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood (1948) is one of Bagby's dreariest novels. It has a peculiarly lifeless quality,
which makes it no fun to read. However, it does have a good if small section (Chapter 2).
The book is no relation to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965-1966), aside from having the same title.
One of the better sections reconstructs the events surrounding the killing
(Chapter 2, and a later passage in the middle of Chapter 3).
If Bagby had published this section as a short story, together with a few later bits and the crime's solution,
he would have had a decent work.
The reconstruction leaves open two mysteries about the victim, as the book points out (middle of Chapter 3).
In Cold Blood comes up with a sound, mildly ingenious explanation for these mysteries (middle of Chapter 9).
SPOILER. These mysteries involve:
The solution shows a "hidden scheme" lying behind these riddles.
"Hidden schemes" are a standard, solid approach in much mystery fiction.
Please see the discussion of hidden schemes at the end of the article on Edward D. Hoch.
- The cause of the drunkenness.
- The origin of the fur coat.
The night club (where the crime is reconstructed in Chapter 2) is a bit like the restaurant settings that open other Bagby novels.
Henry, the washroom attendant at the night club, is a positive, non-stereotyped black character.
In Cold Blood is clearly signaling a pro-Civil Rights message - although it does not discuss the
Civil Rights movement. The book criticizes the racial prejudice Henry faces from a Southerner (Chapter 2).
Henry mainly appears in this same early section that reconstructs the crime (Chapter 2).
This is another reason to regard this section as better than the rest of the novel.
Please see my list of
Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction,
which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
Links to Vera Caspary
In Cold Blood shares subject matter with Vera Caspary's novella "The Murder at the Stork Club" (1945).
Despite these similarities, In Cold Blood differs greatly in both its details and its mystery plot from Caspary's tale.
It shows an influence in overall subject matter, but is far from being any sort of re-working of Caspary's novella.
- Are set in Manhattan night clubs, viewed negatively.
- Center on a financially successful working career woman who is unhappy with her poor provider husband,
and who leads a largely independent existence.
- Have the woman reward herself for her efforts by buying herself a fur coat: a major status symbol of the era.
Characters and Society
Adding to the unpleasant tone of much of In Cold Blood are some of the characters.
Danny Earle is a young man who works in the victim's dress shop. He is sexually harassed
by his woman boss into being her escort and gigolo (Chapters 2, 3). We also learn about
his duties in the shop (middle of Chapter 5). These sections cast a light on ugly realities of the era.
In Cold Blood predates another look at a gigolo, the film
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). In both In Cold Blood and Sunset Boulevard
the gigolo is a young man pressured by a middle-aged woman who employs him.
Both men suffer from self-hate.
Gigolo characters are also found in Bagby's A Dirty Way To Die.
A bizarre woman night club singer called The Tramp is highlighted. She is grotesque.
I don't know enough about popular music to know if she had any real world analogues.
She is much less entertaining and sympathetic than the pop singing group in Bagby's Death Ain't Commercial.
Drop Dead (1949) is a pleasing if uneven mystery novel.
Background: Housing Shortage
Drop Dead takes place against a Background of the post-war housing shortage in New York City.
Many aspects of the story are integrated with this shortage.
In both The Original Carcase (1946) and Drop Dead, there are waiting lists for tenants who want to move
to other and better apartments, within their same building.
There are good reasons why the first crime should be seen as "a murder, not an accident" (start of Chapter 2, second half of Chapter 10).
SPOILERS. There are some decent Scientific Detection features in the first murder.
Drop Dead is careful to have explicit, fair play scientific clues that point to the identity of the killer
(middle of Chapter 2, end of Chapter 8).
Scientific material occasionally shows up in Bagby novels: see the salmonella subplot in Murder's Little Helper.
That subplot is different in specific details from the main scientific detection about the murder in Drop Dead.
However, the subplot about the movements of the cream cake in Drop Dead
(middle of Chapter 2, middle of Chapter 4, near the end of Chapter 8) recalls the trail of the pie in Murder's Little Helper.
The first section deals light-heartedly with an 11-year-old boy, and is quite funny (most of Chapter 1).
However, this material has little connection with the rest of the novel.
It is in fact something of an unfair coincidence, that it happens to take place
at the same time and place as the murder in the story.
Other 1940's mystery authors included dynamic little boys as comic characters:
Later sections of Drop Dead put this kid in frightening, far more suspenseful situations.
These sections are fairly absorbing to read. But the idea of a child in danger is distasteful,
and should have been avoided.
- Mother Finds a Body (1942) by Gypsy Rose Lee (and maybe actually by Craig Rice).
- Sailor, Take Warning! (1943-1944) and There Was a Crooked Man (1945) by Kelley Roos.
Drop Dead is one of several books by the author set in various New York City apartment houses, such as
The Original Carcase, Blood Will Tell, The Man Who Looked Death in the Eye, Murder's Little Helper.
Unlike some Bagby books, there only a little unusual architecture in the building in Drop Dead.
We do learn about the architecture of the building in detail, however, and this can be pleasant reading.
The most unusual architectural feature is Scalsi's one-room dwelling of in the basement (middle of Chapter 2).
This comes in for some later negative comment, deservedly! (near the start of Chapter 8.)
The twin apartment houses next door to each other recall the twin towers in The Original Carcase.
The conditions inside the second apartment building in Drop Dead make an almost surreal contrast
with those in the first (middle of Chapter 7).
The little-known door in the basement connects two buildings that are next door to each other
(end of Chapter 7, near the start of Chapter 8). Such doors have a long history in mystery fiction:
Both in The Clue in the Air and Drop Dead this door enables a suspect to move around unobserved
despite a police watch on the building.
- The Clue in the Air (1917) by Isabel Ostrander.
- The Black Curtain (1941) by Cornell Woolrich.
The "Loiterer" is an idealized well-to-do guy. He is first described in terms of his beautiful clothes.
These have a vaguely formal appearance, although they are not actually formal wear (middle of Chapter 4).
He anticipates a bit some other upper crust men who are admirably well-dressed,
such as John Blake in Murder's Little Helper, and Ralph Henderson in The Kid Who Came Home with a Corpse.
He also has a close, military style haircut. We eventually learn he has served in the Navy.
Inspector Schmidt the Bachelor
Inspector Schmidt calls himself "the bachelor-type" and says women are not attracted to him (Chapter 1).
He compares himself to Sherlock Holmes in this regard. These remarks can perhaps be read
hinting that the Inspector is gay. However, such a conclusion is not proven by these remarks.
In most of the Bagby books I have read, there is little discussion of Inspector Schmidt's
personal life. This look at his bachelor status is unusual.
Shortly after this, Bagby-the-narrator is depicted as sleeping overnight at the Inspector's apartment.
The suspects in Drop Dead are generally heterosexual. Many are members of married couples.
Few seem to have any gay subtext.
Coffin Corner (1949) is a readable but uneven mystery novel.
Coffin Corner is at its best in its long opening (Chapter 1).
This opening has the book's best mystery plotting, and the best architecture.
Coffin Corner has a background in football, especially recruiting.
There are no football games or football action in the book.
Instead there is a detailed look at an unsavory football recruiting system.
The in-depth look at football recruiting has the "anthropological" feel often found in Bagby,
explaining how a society or institution works.
The pro football team in the novel is the Jaguars.
This anticipates the Yucatan setting of Mask for Murder.
"Coffin Corner" was a term used in football.
Anthony Boucher had earlier used "Coffin Corner" (1943)
as the title of a mystery short story.
The "Coffin Corner" technique has a punter kick the football to a corner of the field.
It is rarely used today. But it was clearly popular enough in the 1940's to inspire two mysteries!
In Coffin Corner football star Griff Clark has made his entire career off of "Coffin Corner" plays,
something the public loves (end of Chapter 1).
Bagby perhaps had the word "Corner" on his mind in this period.
His first Jeremiah X. Gibson mystery was titled The Corpse in the Corner Saloon (1948).
Bagby's books often have catchy, inventive titles. He told Eric Pace and the New York Times (7-7-78)
"A good title is something that catches the eye and the imagination".
The same article reports: "Mr. Stein said he stays relaxed about titles,
and they mostly just pop into his head as he works on his novels".
The best parts of the mystery mainly come early on (Chapter 1):
Except for the Embraceable subplot solution, I couldn't see much interesting or creative about
the mystery plot of Coffin Corner, after the opening.
Bagby shows his usual conscientiousness, with plenty of plot detail. But nothing is inspired.
- The medical examiner does a decent job reconstructing the crime (first part of Chapter 1).
He explores a lot of different ideas.
- The puzzle about the "Embraceable" powder is good. It has an unusual premise (Chapter 1).
Inspector Schmidt has the lab do some solid detective work (Chapter 1).
Soon after Schmidt outlines two plausible solutions (Chapter 1).
The actual answer is a surprise (end of Chapter 4).
There are some mildly interesting, but not great, mystery plot developments in the next chapter (Chapter 2):
The killer's motive, revealed at the end, is weak and far-fetched.
- The maid's discovery (middle of Chapter 2).
- This discovery builds on the detailed account of the victim's daily routine. This routine has many steps.
First we get an account from Wentworth, then in more detail by the maid (first half of Chapter 2).
Architecture: The Apartment
The most creative feature of Coffin Corner is the unusual apartment.
Its architecture is set forth early on (second half of Chapter 1).
There is added description of its layout (middle of Chapter 2), although this extra detail is not too interesting.
This apartment shows the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture.
The huge apartment of the rich makes a contrast with the housing shortage affecting ordinary people
in Drop Dead of the same year.
The apartment has militaristic features in its towers and battlements (Chapter 1).
And the building as a whole is compared to an armory. Its living room has an entirely "male" feel.
From the outside, the apartment does not look as if it is there.
Instead, it looks like a collection of architectural ornaments (Chapter 1).
The way the living room looks more like a men's club lobby is also illusionistic.
Buildings that cleverly convey some sort of illusion are a Bagby tradition:
see Blood Will Tell, Murder's Little Helper and Corpse Candle.
Ethnics Getting Equality
Football recruiting is seen negatively in Coffin Corner.
Significantly, the most sympathetic football player in Coffin Corner
is one who did not participate in the recruitment system.
Stu Winowski joined a pro football team after graduating college.
He is trying to build up a nest egg from his football salary, before starting his career as a lawyer.
Stu Winowski thus entered pro football at a far later stage than the other players,
who were recruited in college or even high school.
Stu Winowski's Polish name makes a conspicuous contrast with the
other characters, who are old-school WASP's. Like John Bragioni in The Original Carcase,
he is an ethnic whose ability and character are pushing him towards a leadership position in
a changing America. He forms a contrast with the unimpressive J.J. Wentworth,
the WASP who has inherited his family's money and football team.
The Case of the Absent-Minded Professor (1943) had included a college
football coach with the ethnic name Paul Y. Wiznowsky. He worked for an
"appendage to a football stadium that called itself a university".
Bagby novels often describe men's clothes. Coffin Corner has a brief passage
about the excellent clothes of football coach Jake Stand (start of Chapter 7).
Jake Stand is admirably well-dressed, including the pinstripe suit that was
de rigueur in the 1940's film noir era. Coffin Corner makes a point of noting
that Jake Stand's clothes are much better than condescending stereotypes of
how people allegedly dress in farm country (he's from Nebraska).
Stand's behavior is also noted as not "provincial". Bagby is a New Yorker -
but he's out to shatter stereotypes of people in middle regions of the USA.
The statue of the patriarch shows him as a football player in
a turtleneck and "moleskin britches" (Chapter 1).
The book points out how odd it is to see a statue of such clothes.
(Moleskin is made out of cotton. Despite its name, it is not made from moles.)
The wealthy football stadium owners have security guards.
They wear "neat gray uniforms" (Chapter 1).
A guard "jerks his thumb": a macho, aggressive gesture.
In comic books, such thumb gestures are often made by uniformed men. Please see my list of
Thumb Gestures in Comics.
Football star Griff Clark has a "famous number", 17. Off the field,
he wears sweat shirts with the number (end of Chapter 1).
This is an unusual form of personal swagger. Also 1 and 7 are phallic symbol numbers,
common in illustrations and films. Please see my article on
Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism.
Blood Will Tell
Blood Will Tell (1950) is an absorbing piece of storytelling.
It has richly developed characters. The story is comic, but not a farce.
The characters do not run around creating havoc; instead, the book is a series of interviews
with the characters by the police, in which the suspects' personalities come to
Brother-sister pairs are important in Blood Will Tell, as they are in
The Original Carcase. Butterfield and his sister both work in design,
giving the book a link to the Van Dine tradition of New Yorkers in creative work.
These are the two most sympathetic suspects, intended as a rebuke to the
pretentious social climbers and parasites on the rich among the other suspects.
The ex-chorus girl also has a theater background.
The ex-chorine is basically a courtesan - and more sympathetic than a woman
in the novel seeking marriage. One wonders if this aspect is also suggesting sympathy
for other kinds of non-standard sexuality.
Blood Will Tell shows the architectural interest of Golden Age mystery fiction.
Much of it takes place in a fancy Park Avenue apartment building. The author uses the
continued architectural exploration of the building as a main structural feature of the plot.
One of the book's best plot twists concerns an architectural feature.
Blood Will Tell also follows Van Dine School traditions, in investigating
the movements of the characters around the crime scene at the time of the murder.
The corpse is found in a "fire stairs", just as in the next Bagby book
Death Ain't Commercial. These are rarely used back stairs, provided mainly for use
as escapes from fire. Their doors tend to open on only one side, an interesting feature.
Where and how doors are located, is used to add complexity and interest to the architecture.
Mystery Plot: The Murder
The weakest part of Blood Will Tell is the solution of the mystery at the end.
The choice of killer is poorly motivated. And there are few clues pointing to the killer.
This unimpressive choice makes the end the least good part of an otherwise absorbing book.
Bagby would have been better off bringing the murder home to the suspect who was the main inheritor under the will.
However, the finale continues the interaction
between the building's architecture and the killing, which is a plus.
Death Ain't Commercial
Death Ain't Commercial (1951) centers on a pop music group, also an
example of the Van Dine School's interest in show biz. The group of six men
are well-dressed sophisticates, a bit like the Rat Pack to come. They are
that phenomenon of those times, idols of "bobby-soxers" (teenage girls).
Bagby's interest is in the men in the group and their personalities. He does
not widen his scope to a portrait of the pop music industry as a whole,
or its business aspects.
The six men have family ties, and all live and work together in the same office and
same home. They resemble the eccentric families of grown-ups found in some Van Dine School writers,
especially Ellery Queen. At times the men's bizarre behavior approaches the surrealism
The portrait of the men in the opening section (Chapters 1-5) forms
the main interest of the book. The men's relationship offers another example
of Bagby's interest in men who are closely connected.
Other Bagby mysteries include popular music singers. There is a nightclub chanteuse in In Cold Blood,
and country musicians in Country and Fatal (1980).
The men all dress the same, being part of a singing group, and Bagby
develops this for maximum surreal effect.
In addition to anticipating the Rat Pack, the group also foreshadows such late 1990's
pop ensembles as "98 Degrees" in the USA and "2 Be 3" in France. Such groups were regularly photographed
wearing common or coordinated clothes, like the pop group in Death Ain't Commercial.
The standard music industry classification of "98 Degrees" and "2 Be 3" as "boy bands"
is misleading: both groups contained men in their twenties, who dressed and acted as adults, not teenagers.
The pop group in Death Ain't Commercial similarly consists of grown-ups.
It was also fairly common for rock groups in the 1960's to be dressed alike on stage.
While this is not explicit in Death Ain't Commercial, shared clothes for men often express a gay subtext.
So do the close relationships between the men in the group.
A wolf suit costume at the end, a briefly seen piece of imagery,
also offers a striking touch. Ellery Queen
solved a Halloween mystery while wearing a cat costume in
"The Dead Cat" (1946; based on a 1939 radio play) in Calendar of Crime.
See my list of Animal Costumes in Fiction.
The solution involves a puzzle plot. However, the solution's ideas are none too creative.
An alibi centers an an old, old gimmick, although Babgy provides a slightly new twist.
Scared to Death
Scared to Death (1952) is a minor book, more subdued and restrained than Bagby's better fiction.
The characters are ordinary, there is neither architectural nor New York detail, and little surrealism.
Bagby gets comedy from weary policeman Schmidt's desire to take off his shoes.
Both The Original Carcase and Scared to Death have Inspector Schmidt running around
crime scenes shoeless in his socks. This can seem surreal. It leads to strange effects,
and often has bystanders gawking.
Expertise, Thoughtful Observation and Male Bonding
An observant young doctor who treats the victim, does some bonding with Inspector Schmidt.
This shows the way this era valued brains in men,
and the way people took pride in the mental skills with which they performed their job.
On the plus side, the subplot about the cab driver shows mild ingenuity. It is set forth in the start
of Chapter 2, solved in the last section of Chapter 5.
The choice of killer surprised me. However, this is partly due to the choice
being really implausible!
SPOILER. Running through the main mystery plot, are developments involving men's clothes.
They are in the same broad tradition as the "men's clothes" plot ideas in
Ellery Queen beginning with the hats in The Roman Hat Mystery (1929).
Bagby is in there trying to create a puzzle plot, but his version just seems labored.
It does bring together several disparate pieces of data scattered throughout the story,
weaving them into a hidden pattern: always a nice development.
The Corpse With Sticky Fingers
The Corpse With Sticky Fingers (1952) is one of Bagby's lesser books.
It does have a couple of decent mystery plot ideas: see below.
Biggest problem: a negatively stereotyped gay man, among the suspects.
This guy starts out as a humorous figure, but his depiction throughout the book just keeps getting
more and more negative. It is unclear why Bagby, whose books are full of sympathetic portraits of
male bonding, would then create such a negative portrait of a gay man.
The gay man is a big city department store window dresser. This in fact was a profession
often associated with gay men in that era. The great film director Vincente Minnelli
had a job early in his career, creating window displays for a Chicago department store.
See Mark Griffin's book A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli (2010).
Department Store Window
Another problem: by 1952, the "corpse in the department store window" gambit was old hat.
It had already appeared in The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen,
Death Demands an Audience (1940) by Helen Reilly,
and in Bagby's own The Original Carcase (1946). In terms of story and dramatic situation,
Bagby does not do much that had not already been done in these previous works.
The windows in Reilly's Death Demands an Audience and The Corpse With Sticky Fingers
are both kinetic: both are raised out of a basement region, where they can be accessed by a corridor.
I suspect that both Reilly and Bagby were inspired by a real life department store.
Workers load up the window displays with mannequins and props in the basement,
then raise them to ground level so they can be seen by people in the street.
Bagby does get architectural interest, out of the moving display windows.
The windows are highly rectilinear. This recalls another rectilinear area for a crime,
the milpas in Mask for Murder.
Department Store Window: Mystery Sub-Plot
Bagby also comes up with a mystery plot reason, to explain why crimes are taking place in the windows.
This is not brilliant, but it is sound enough (explained in the solution in Chapter 10).
On the negative side, such windows seem awfully public for any criminal activity to occur there.
One would think the culprit would have found a more secluded place.
SPOILER. On the positive side, the reason behind the window crimes is linked
to an interesting, creative clue: the corpse with sticky fingers mentioned in the title
(set forth in the first half of Chapter 6, solved in Chapter 10).
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Silver
The other good mystery subplot involves the silver sold in the department store.
This fun plot is set forth in the middle of the book (first half of Chapter 6)
and solved long before the ending (second half of Chapter 7).
It is zany and full of surreal imagery. It adds a note of pleasant comedy to the story.
It is not enormously plausible - but its comic tone asks us to grant a
slightly implausible plot development indulgence.
I wish this fun bit of mystery were in a better novel. It is the main reason
one might want to seek out a copy of The Corpse With Sticky Fingers.
Give the Little Corpse a Great Big Hand
Give the Little Corpse a Great Big Hand (1953) is a mystery with a nightclub setting, like In Cold Blood.
It is best in its opening (Chapters 1, 2). This opening is colorful, the rest of the novel is conventional.
Unfortunately, there is nothing much interesting about the book's mystery plots.
Give the Little Corpse a Great Big Hand also resembles In Cold Blood, in that both books
look at race relations. Both:
Please see my list of
Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction,
which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
- Have non-stereotyped, dignified black characters working at the nightclub.
- Denounce racism.
The black men are interrupted by the police while changing back into regular clothes after their nightclub act.
One is therefore still barefoot (Chapter 2). This links this sympathetic character to imagery usually associated
with hero Inspector Schmidt himself, who loves to remove his shoes.
Shady operator Alfie Jessup wears a blue tuxedo with a red bow tie and cummerbund (Chapter 1).
Such brilliantly colored, non-black evening wear marks him as strictly non-U.
It conveys that he is a cheap but flashy low-life.
By contrast, much is made of how clean the college crowd looks. We learn that young romantic hero
Tony Graham, one of this clean and clean-cut group, is expensively well-dressed (Chapter 1).
But we don't learn details of his outfit, or his friends' clothes.
Tony Graham turns out to be a self-made success story, who worked hard at a career (start of Chapter 6).
He is contrasted with his rival for the heroine's affections Alex Harper,
a rich kid who regards the idea of work with horror. Harper is under the thumb of his even worse
tycoon older brother. This anticipates the look at rich rotten families in Bagby's next book Dead Drunk.
However, these Harpers are more conventional and thus less interesting than the father and son in Dead Drunk.
Dead Drunk (1953) is a minor and mainly unpleasant book.
It does have some moments of social commentary.
Permutations of Crime
Dead Drunk has an unusual plot construction for a Bagby book.
It mainly consists of an endless series of permutations, of various kinds of corruption
among a small group of rich people. Bagby keeps twisting the plot, exposing new layers
of crime, relationships, evil and criminal schemes among this well-to-do set.
These schemes stretch through this group's 10-year history with each other.
This plot takes a certain amount of ingenuity. It has the merit of being a large design,
with a huge number of details fitting into the overall pattern.
Unfortunately, I think this sort of plot has limitations:
I prefer more standard kinds of mysteries-with-solutions plots.
- I'm less impressed with "plot twists" than many readers seem to be.
- And the book lacks "fair play": it is hard to see how readers could predict and/or deduce these twists,
based on any clues in the story.
The Macho vs the Un-Macho
A key contrast is between the macho, well-built father Bill Ledbury, and his skinny, painfully
un-macho, un-athletic son Curt Ledbury (Chapter 3).
Fiction of all sorts is rife with such contrasts and comparisons. In our culture, the athletic
is often seen as healthy and normal, the un-macho as abnormal or diseased.
Furthermore, macho men are seen as competent and practical.
SPOILERS. Dead Drunk shatters all stereotypes, by having the un-macho son be highly competent at business,
and the macho father be an incompetent fool. This is presented as a surprise twist (start of Chapter 5).
It certainly surprised me.
SPOILERS. Later, we get an in-depth look showing the lifestyle obsessions of the macho father.
This B.M.O.C. lifestyle is highly unappealing. This too has an element of social criticism (middle of Chapter 8).
The inside look at corrupt football recruiting recalls the more detailed accounts in Coffin Corner,
a novel whose main subject is football.
Corruption in a Financial Firm
Dead Drunk centers on a major Wall Street stock brokerage, Ledbury and Curtis.
It is depicted as perhaps the most famous of Wall Street financial houses (Chapter 1).
SPOILERS. We eventually learn the firm has a massive, decades-long history of corruption (start of Chapter 5).
This reminds one of the criticism of Wall Street houses often made during the financial crisis that began in 2007.
The alley shows Bagby getting drama out of a seemingly minimalistic environment (end of Chapter 1, start of Chapter 2).
The victim's apartment is vividly described (Chapter 2, start of Chapter 3).
While simple, it is integrated in interesting ways with the rest of the building.
The gambler Morton's house has some unusual features (Chapter 4).
It is "defensible": capable of standing up to an armed attack. And it has an unusual front door.
Our first view of the victim shows him wearing what the well-dressed businessman of the era wore
(near start of Chapter 1). Both the covert overcoat and the well-shined shoes recall
the spiffy rich guy called the Loiterer in Drop Dead.
Well-dressed Jake Stand in Coffin Corner (start of Chapter 7) also wears a covert coat.
Two scenes depict white tie and tails.
This is always the dressiest possible look for men:
See Gordon Hobbes in Two in the Bush, who also wears tails.
- The victim is well-dressed. At one point, he appears in white tie and tails that have been
especially tailored for him (Chapter 1).
- Later we get a view of the evening shirt the father wears with his white tie and tails (middle of Chapter 3).
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends (1953) of the same year also looks at expensive men's shirts -
although those shirts are day wear to be worn with suits.
The Body in the Basket
The Body in the Basket (1954) is a key Bagby book.
An Unusual Setting for Inspector Schmidt
The Body in the Basket is unusual in the Bagby works, in that it takes Inspector Schmidt
out of his home territory of New York City. Instead it moves him to Spain, far out of his jurisdiction:
a setting we might more likely find in one of the Stein books about globetrotters like
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt or Matt Erridge.
What might Bagby's reasons be, for choosing Inspector Schmidt as his sleuth instead of Mulligan, Hunt or Erridge?
Tim Mulligan, Elsie Mae Hunt and Matt Erridge are all amateur detectives. None has any official standing.
By contrast, Inspector Schmidt can bill himself in Spain as a "visiting US official". Schmidt can request
the cooperation of the Spanish Government. Schmidt is not in charge of the homicide investigation in Spain,
but he can maintain an official presence and standing. This plays a key role throughout The Body in the Basket.
It is especially important in the virtuosic central section of The Body in the Basket (Chapters 5 - 7),
where Schmidt conducts a long, intricate negotiation with Spanish officials.
In addition, Schmidt has a certain moral gravitas that the other sleuths lack - although they
are highly moral characters. Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt are zany, eccentric sleuths, who often plunge
into events with a feel of comic adventure. And Matt Erridge is a two-fisted action figure with a yen for fighting.
By contrast, Inspector Schmidt represents the official New York police, and by extension, the
United States Government. He is a Moral Authority figure. While there is plenty of wry commentary and humor
in the Inspector Schmidt books, they also represent a man who offers an official moral viewpoint.
This allows The Body in the Basket a moral "place to stand", it its critique of the
dictatorial Franco regime in Spain.
The Opening: The Restaurant
The Body in the Basket opens in a prestige restaurant in Madrid, Spain.
Other Stein novels begin in restaurants abroad, too: Three - With Blood, Mask for Murder.
Such settings allow:
The sheer concreteness of detail in Bagby books suggests real-life experience.
One suspects either Bagby has frequently eaten in such restaurants himself, or intensively quizzed a friend who has.
The detail goes beyond what might be gleaned from guidebooks. It thus gives a "you are there", inside look
at foreign countries. It also ties in with the "anthropological" feel often found in Bagby,
where characters explain how a society or institution works.
- Rich "foreign atmosphere", detailing in concrete terms what life is like in a foreign country.
- Glamour and escapism, showing us a tourist site where the books' readers might want to go -
or at least fantasize about as armchair travelers.
- An upbeat, "safe" locale, contrasting with later danger-filled suspense passages in the novel.
"Change of mood" is an important aspect of fiction structure.
- The introduction of a multitude of characters.
The Opening: Men's Clothes
The first page gives us a look a waiter's spiffy formal wear. Stein/Bagby has a long-term interest in fancy men's clothes.
The fancy but sinister uniforms worn by the secret police, also gain in resonance by recurring at key intervals in the novel.
Englishman David Horsham is the sort of nice young foreign man, that the heroes of Bagby books like to male bond with.
In his quiet way Horsham is upper crust, recalling the young foreign hero in Three - With Blood.
Both men combine upper class polish with a fiery dynamism.
The narrator suggests approvingly that Horsham likes to get into fights (Chapter 1).
Horsham anticipates Stein's later hero Matt Erridge, who is a two-fisted adventurer who loves to get into scraps.
This cult of the manly fistfight was big in the 1950's, when TV private eyes and cowboys all excelled at fisticuffs.
However, it has dated badly today, when any sort of fight is likely to erupt into deadly, life-ruining gun violence.
The narrator thinks Horsham looks better when Horsham is angry (Chapter 1). The linking of attractiveness to anger
and fiery qualities is sometimes seen in other works:
- The fashion spread "Formal Yves" in GQ magazine,
December 1988, photographed by Matthew Rolston. Most of the shoot shows the smiling hero, very well-dressed
in black tuxedos that also recall prestige business suits. He looks extraordinarily powerful and upper crust.
But the last photo shows the angry, furious hero (Olivier Debray) in an elegant tuxedo,
and is captioned "In a Hot Debate, Formal Finery Commands Attention".
This guy is arguing and aggressively making a point and taking a stand, not physically fighting.
- In the episode The Judgement (1968) of Cimarron Strip, handsome villain Burr DeBenning
often glares angrily at the hero.
- The cover paintings of pulp magazines 12 Sports Aces (Vol 7 #2, January 1943)
and Ace Sports (Vol 16 #2, January 1948)
show hockey player #7 in a spectacular red uniform yelling aggressively.
- Roy Lichtenstein's Pop Art painting Okay Hot-Shot, Okay! (1963) shows its
handsome pilot hero expressing intense emotion. It's based on a comic book tale drawn by Russ Heath,
"The Haunted Tank vs Killer Tank" (G.I. Combat #94, June-July 1962).
Heath is the primary creator of this portrait, although Lichtenstein enhanced it.
- See my list of Thumb Gestures in Comics, often used by sexy angry men.
As a Britisher, Horsham has strict limits on the currency he can take out of England while traveling.
This inside look at business abroad will recur in the Matt Erridge books. (A film, not by Bagby,
that mentions British currency restrictions of the era is Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954).)
The mystery plot is not the most interesting aspect of The Body in the Basket. The political critique
of Franco, the intricate negotiations, the background are all more interesting.
Still, Bagby has not neglected to provide a formal murder mystery puzzle. It has a pair of virtues.
- The choice of villain is well-concealed.
- This surprise about the choice of villain depends on a mildly ingenious twist,
re-interpreting an event we witnessed earlier in the novel, giving it a new meaning (seen in Chapter 2, reinterpreted at the end).
A Dirty Way To Die
A Dirty Way To Die (1955) is a middling mystery. Its first half is lively,
and makes entertaining reading (Chapter 1 to middle of Chapter 6).
Then the book largely runs out of inspiration, and comes to a none-too-brilliant solution.
The solution has many different criminals acting more or less independently to commit the crimes.
There are two murderers, plus a third villain who is engaged in a hidden Criminal Scheme.
This sort of solution is second rate. Instead of coming up with a single culprit and one
over-arching explanation of the crimes, they are explained as the actions of a whole series of criminals.
This is disappointing.
On the positive side, the identity of one of the murderers surprised me.
There are some decent medical aspects to the crimes, including some revealed by forensic work
(second half of Chapter 4, end of Chapter 5).
The Criminal Scheme is fairly clever and entertaining, one of the book's more enjoyable ideas.
(The set-up and mysterious aspects of the situation are set forth in Chapter 8,
building on material in Chapters 2-3;
the hidden Criminal Scheme that explains all this is revealed towards the end of Chapter 9.)
Events we have seen one way throughout the tale,
are given a new interpretation during the book's solution: always a good thing in a mystery.
Unfortunately, the Scheme also seems implausible. SPOILERS. I just don't believe a villain
making all this money would lead such a hard-working lifestyle. (Just to be clear,
the Criminal Scheme affects the financial arrangements between
Andrew Simms, Beryl Tucker and Brian Williams.)
Unlike some of the better Stein/Bagby books, A Dirty Way To Die lacks a Background:
in other words, it doesn't paint a portrait of some aspect of life or society.
So you will not learn much by reading A Dirty Way To Die.
However, there is a detailed description of the store, its operation,
and the life history of the little old lady who runs it (Chapter 5).
This section can be considered a mini-Background. It forms the sort of
entertaining digression that sometimes appears in Bagby novels.
As is typical of Bagby, he has developed it in elaborate,
logically consistent and carefully thought through detail.
SPOILER. I was hoping the sweet little old lady would turn out to be
the secret head of organized crime in New York. But she actually turns out
to be just as innocent as she looks.
Architecture and Cityscapes
The first half of A Dirty Way To Die greatly benefits from its detailed descriptions of buildings,
all in Manhattan:
The tenement and the house-garage form detailed, large scale "landscapes".
This kind of elaborate cityscape is always interesting. Even the much smaller store
is situated within a cityscape that affects it.
- Streets in Chelsea (a Manhattan neighborhood) driven through by a cab (Chapter 1).
- The tenement (end of Chapter 3, Chapter 4).
- The store (Chapter 5).
- The house (Chapter 2) and garage (first half of Chapter 6).
- The seminary in Chelsea (briefly seen near the end of Chapter 4). The famous real-life
General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church is located in Chelsea.
The seminary in A Dirty Way To Die is never named or explicitly identified.
The store has unique features, and is the most original architecture in the novel.
The other architecture in A Dirty Way To Die is more standard. Still, it is fun to read about.
We see the evolution of the tenement and the garage over time, describing their history.
The Manhattan streets and buildings in A Dirty Way To Die are rectilinear.
This is hardly surprising: after all, Manhattan is laid out on a grid. Still,
the architecture in A Dirty Way To Die shows Bagby's enthusiasm for
Babgy is observant of New York City lifestyles. There are some pleasant moments of satire:
- A hotel full of intellectual painters and poets is briefly lampooned.
It's in Chelsea, in 1955 a run-down section of New York.
(Today Chelsea is an upscale tourist destination, and a center of the art and fashion worlds.)
The hotel is not named, but it sure sounds like the real-life Hotel Chelsea (start of Chapter 1).
- The hit-man Happy Nelson masquerades as an upper middle class businessman (middle of Chapter 9).
The satire here is directed at such slick Madison Avenue business types, not the Mob.
The hit-man has their "look" down cold.
The soda jerk's jacket is worn by two different men. Their different builds affect its
appearance (middle of Chapter 3, early in Chapter 9).
Murder's Little Helper
Murder's Little Helper (1963) is a murder mystery. It's a police procedural set among fairly
ordinary people and locales, and fairly colorless compared to some of the author's other books.
However, I wound up enjoying it anyway.
Among the book's better sections: Chapters 2, 3, 6, 7, 12, plus a brief bit on medical detection in chapter 4.
These sections are discussed below.
Mystery Plot: The Murder
Murder's Little Helper has the merit of sticking strictly to detection:
Inspector Schmidt starts trying to solve the murder on the very first page, and he never lets up.
Unfortunately, most of this detective work is routine.
There is a small but decent puzzle plot about the killer's first names and nicknames - we know from witnesses
what the victim called him, but these don't seem to match any of the suspects well (set forth in Chapters 3, 7).
This turns into the main clue to the killer's identity, when the solution is given at the end.
While not a Dying Message, this has affinities to a Dying Message puzzle: remarks by the victim
give clues to the identity of a killer, but only after clever interpretation by the detective.
A second clue involves interpreting a photograph (set forth at the end of Chapter 3, solved near the end of Chapter 14).
SPOILER. This type of clue recalls Helen McCloy, and plot twists she
included in Cue for Murder (1942) and The Further Side of Fear (1967).
While these clues all fall into the same category,
the specific ideas in Murder's Little Helper are original and pleasant.
Mystery Plot: The Disappearance
A subplot about a man who disappears has a solution I'd didn't expect
(set forth start of Chapter 6, solved start of Chapter 11).
The solution is logical and fairly based on what the reader knows.
SPOILER. This subplot has little relationship to the main murder mystery.
Science and Detection
A brief but absorbing account is given about how the causes of a salmonella outbreak are typically tracked down
(first half of Chapter 4). This would have made a good subject for a longer discussion.
Unfortunately, when the detectives track down the book's own salmonella case, it adds
little to this approach (Chapter 11). It also tracks the salmonella down to a routine, uninteresting source.
Detective Danny Kirk
Inspector Schmidt is assisted by a likable but brand-new young detective officer, Detective Danny Kirk.
Kirk is believable, but could use more character development and personality.
Kirk does some simple but sound detective work, indicating he has the solid beginnings of a detective, at least (Chapters 2, 7).
Kirk in fact makes all the key discoveries early in the book, identifying both
the unknown victim (Chapter 2) and identifying and finding the suspects (Chapter 7).
By contrast Inspector Schmidt solves the mystery at the end of the book.
We do learn that Kirk grew up in crowded, working class apartments. He is expert on every type of bed that
can be folded up and concealed as a couch, after sleeping on them as a kid (middle of Chapter 2).
His enumeration of such devices is fun. Bagby liked beds. See:
There are signs that Murder's Little Helper might be trying to appeal to the "youth market",
or perhaps to a movie or TV sale. In addition to the young, brand-new detective Kirk,
quite a few of the suspects are glamorized young people.
For the last five years, the author had been writing his series about hip, glamorous
young detective Matt Erridge. Either Bagby or his editors or both might have believed
that young characters were a commercial asset for his books.
- The unusual hotel room in Mask for Murder,
- A suspect's bed in The Corpse in the Corner Saloon (Chapter 2),
- The subplot about the sofa in The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends.
Kirk is now what would be described as a "hunk", although that contemporary word is not used in this 1963 novel.
The book emphasizes how well-built he is (Chapter 2).
A hip young woman rhapsodizes about his build (end of Chapter 6, start of Chapter 7).
Witnesses who saw the killer also describe him as well-built: so men's builds become
a running topic in the story (Chapters 3, 6).
Inspector Schmidt compares a photo of a very well-built male swimmer a woman witness is enthusing over,
to the sort of "art studies" one can purchase in Times Square (end of Chapter 3).
Although it not mentioned explicitly in the novel, such muscle-man photos were presumably bought by gay men.
This links the much-expressed-in-the-novel enthusiasm of heterosexual women for well-built men,
to the desires of gay men for such hunks. It is a daringly open comment for 1963.
Careers: Trouble-Shooters in Factories
One of the livelier passages in Murder's Little Helper recounts the suspects' careers
(Chapter 12). The most interesting is John Blake's rise as a factory manager.
He is frequently sent to "trouble spots" in steel factories, to straighten them out.
This recalls the author's series detective Matt Erridge, a young engineer who trouble-shoots
technical problems in factories, and who makes a good living at it.
Both Matt Erridge and John Blake are glamorous young men with similar careers.
However, John Blake is a much darker character, being a suspect in a murder mystery.
Suspect Anderson is a successful architect, recalling
the architectural firm in The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends.
One of the suspects systematically saves all the photos he takes, in well-organized files (middle of Chapter 8).
He has built up an archive of photos, in his home. In some ways, this is simply designed to
make a plot point plausible: otherwise, an obscure photo useful to the plot, might not have been saved.
But it also makes for a source of information. Information deposits like newspaper morgues,
police files, archives and libraries fascinated people in this era. They were important repositories of knowledge,
in a period before the rise of computer databases and the Internet. Even in the Internet age,
they are still crucially important!
The middle section of the book is full of gossip about characters' sex lives (Chapters 6, 8).
This is lurid, and contains some original peccadillos (especially Chapter 8). It isn't boring.
But it isn't elevated, either. Its mild originality is not enough to make it worth reading.
A woman turns out likely to be a prostitute (Chapters 6, 7).
She is unusual among fictional prostitutes in that she does not run to extremes:
she is neither a high class, glamorized call girl, nor a sordid street corner hooker.
She seems like just another lower middle class or working class woman.
A fun-loving but respectable woman witness gives reasons why women avoid social contact with prostitutes.
This is less puritanical and more practical than one might expect (Chapter 7).
The witness makes it clear that she does not personally condemn prostitutes -
but wants nothing to do with them either. This section makes an interesting companion piece
to the sympathetic depiction of a courtesan in Blood Will Tell.
The same witness explains how a charity fund-raising effort for the Heart Fund in her apartment building works (Chapter 7).
This is one of the little sidelights found in Bagby, where he describes some institution or process.
It turns out to have nothing to do with the plot.
Yet this account preserves a social custom that otherwise might well be forgotten today.
Links to The Man Who Looked Death in the Eye
Murder's Little Helper shares subjects and settings with The Man Who Looked Death in the Eye (1961),
an earlier mystery the author wrote as "Hampton Stone". Both books:
Despite these similarities, The Man Who Looked Death in the Eye is a poor novel.
- Take place in a small Manhattan apartment building, filled with middle class people.
- Have a none-too-respectable woman resident there as the victim.
- Are full of gossip about the woman's numerous affairs.
- Have well-built male hunks serving as suspects, including one man with red hair.
A patio is cunningly constructed so that the outside seems to be coming indoors (middle of Chapter 7).
Bagby is precise about the details of how this is done.
This piece of architecture plays no role in the mystery plot, and is not connected with anything else in the book.
However, in some other Bagby works, deceptive architecture, designed to foster illusions,
plays a role in the story. BIG SPOILERS. See Blood Will Tell.
A photo shows a group of women dressed all alike; it also includes men dressed in common clothes.
Inspector Schmidt makes a sound deduction about where the photo was taken (Chapter 2).
This recalls Death Ain't Commercial, and its elaborate depiction of groups of men in common clothes.
An observation is made about the pockets of a well-tailored dinner jacket (near the end of Chapter 7).
It allows the sleuths to make an obvious but sound deduction.
We get an account of wealthy young John Blake's clothes (start of Chapter 3).
These are typical of the well-to-do New York business types that sometimes show up in Bagby books.
These clothes are pleasant, but their components are quite conventional.
Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser
Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser (1965) is more of a thriller than a mystery - and it suffers for it.
Mystery plotting and puzzles are skimped. There is indeed a murder mystery,
but it turns out to have been committed by a fairly obvious suspect. The book is also utterly implausible.
The best parts are mainly in a fairly early section (last part of Chapter 3 through start of Chapter 5):
Muscle-man Richard Brown has no trouble rising up out of a deep sofa that normally
entraps most people (first third of Chapter 6). This is an example of the
deep chairs that pop up in accounts.
- The history of a burglar's criminal career is one of the little mini-essays or disquisitions
on a subject, that run through Bagby (last six pages of Chapter 3).
The keys the burglar uses are another example of the metal objects that sometimes occur in the author.
We learn about the construction of the buildings he robs: a reflection of the architectural in Bagby's tales.
- Photographs provide information about the case. The photographs are from unusual sources:
the police (end of Chapter 3), a professional Central Park photographer (end of Chapter 4).
We learn a little bit about photos from such sources, in general.
Photos sometimes play a role in Bagby books.
- Richard Brown is one of Babgy's spectacularly well-built men (first part of Chapter 4),
like Danny Kirk in Murder's Little Helper. And as a successful young businessman he recalls
John Blake in Murder's Little Helper. He is also a devoted father.
Richard Brown is a likable character - but I wish he were in a better novel.
- The room with the Alice in Wonderland wallpaper is an unusual idea (end of Chapter 4).
- SPOILERS. Bagby gets a certain surrealist charge by the sudden appearance of Richard Brown's Evil Twin
(first part of Chapter 5). The lookalike wears a leather jacket and a ducktail haircut: rebel's clothes in that era.
The Good Twin Richard Brown one-ups this at the end, by buying a Swiss mountaineer's outfit
including leather pants (middle of Chapter 10). Like the Italian Lambretta driver's padded leather jacket
in Sitting Up Dead, this views leather clothes as European.
Richard Brown's unexpected trip to Switzerland (middle of Chapter 10) makes pleasant if brief reading.
This European episode is atypical of Bagby's Schmidt books, which are usually set in New York City
- although The Body in the Basket is set in Spain.
Richard Brown's trip abroad is far more common in the globe-trotting books the author wrote as Aaron Marc Stein.
Richard Brown's trip to Switzerland is viewed as the sort of thing a successful businessman
might undertake. There is a sense of pride in the new opportunities Americans had to travel.
The book's title is a play on the Alice in Wonderland phrase "curiouser and curiouser".
The book opens at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.
This real-life statue was built in 1959, and was fairly new when Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser was written.
References to Alice in Wonderland run through Ellery Queen.
They are less typical of Bagby. Ellery Queen's Alice references are more interesting than Bagby's.
Corpse Candle (1967) is one of Bagby's least enjoyable books. It has a grim, depressing quality.
However, it does have a few good sections.
Corpse Candle tries to keep up with the times, showing various with-it 1960's types and topics.
Corpse Candle is a change of pace for Bagby. It takes him outside of New York City,
and away from its sophisticated denizens, instead concentrating on students and
working class types around a New England university campus.
Bagby's change of venue to Spain in The Body in the Basket led to one of his best books.
But Corpse Candle falls flat.
I could go on to a long wailing litany, about how poor I thought characters, atmosphere, story-telling, etc.
in Corpse Candle all are. Instead, this review will concentrate on a few good aspects.
Corpse Candle is best in its opening (Chapter 1, start of Chapter 2),
a conversation between Inspector Schmidt and the narrator (second half of Chapter 9), and the finale, with solution (Chapter 15).
These sections could have made a good short story.
Corpse Candle is a full scale whodunit murder mystery, like Bagby's other books - but its mystery plot mainly lacks ingenuity.
SPOILERS. The best part of the murder mystery: a clever motive for the crime (end of Chapter 15).
This motive explains why the narrator Bagby gets attacked, at the book's start.
Up to this point, the attack has seemed impossible to explain. It just seems pointless.
The motive gives a clever, logical and unexpected reason for the attack.
It also motivates the crimes in general. Showing good mystery craftsmanship, the motive is logically linked
to events earlier in the book, events fully explained to the reader.
Nature and Ecology
One of the better 1960's topics in Corpse Candle is its discovery of ecology.
Many Americans were just becoming aware of ecology as an idea in the 1960's.
Corpse Candle has a professor who specializes in it.
The unspoiled woods around the professor's house are a key topic in the novel:
These passages are all interesting. They could have made part of a good short story.
- We get a vivid portrait of them (Chapter 1).
- Then learn about how the professor is preserving them for his research (start of Chapter 2).
- More is learned about them and the prof, in the conversation between Inspector Schmidt and the narrator (second half of Chapter 9).
- The finale returns us to the woods, in scenes that echo the opening (Chapter 15).
The professor is only talked about. He never appears "on stage".
He is more interesting than the book's characters who do appear.
The woods and the isolated house are duly linked to Thoreau and his book Walden (1854) (Chapter 1).
Thoreau was one of the major touchstones of 1950's and 1960's American counter-culture.
The same opening refers to a classic poem about a forest: Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" (1819).
Although this is not discussed in Corpse Candle, both Shelley and Thoreau were major early advocates
of non-violent resistance to social evil.
The same passage that discusses the professor's woods (second half of Chapter 9), also discusses the
architecture of his house. The house is full of glass windows, giving it a peculiar "see through" quality.
This quality is deceptive: which echoes the deceptive architecture of the patio in Murder's Little Helper,
which seems to mix inside and outside. The deceptive quality of the architecture in the two novels,
is different but related.
A young woman folk-rock singer is a major character, echoing the current real-life folk-rock craze.
I didn't like this woman at all. Another one of Bagby's most lifeless books, In Cold Blood,
contains a bizarre woman night club singer. The folk-rock singer in Corpse Candle is less bizarre,
but still quite eccentric.
On the whole, Bagby's treatment of the folk-rock scene is not embarrassing or un-hip,
but it is not interesting either. It specifically looks at folk-rock, rather than folk music as a whole:
this singer never sings any genuine folk songs, or shows the slightest interest in them.
She uses newly composed music, that the narrator compares to the Beatles and their rock music.
The Wikipedia says the term "folk-rock" was first used by the press in June 1965,
to describe The Byrds and their version of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". Such excellent folk-rock albums as
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966) with The Mamas & the Papas, and
The Sounds of Silence (1966) and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966) with Simon & Garfunkel followed.
Don McLean's "American Pie" (1971) was still a few years in the future. I wish to avoid the hype of some rock critics,
who hail every competent rock tune as the greatest cultural achievement since the Sistine Chapel.
But one can say fairly and without exaggeration, that the best songs on such folk-rock albums
are solid achievements in song-writing.
When Bagby wrote about folk-rock in Corpse Candle (1967), it was a red hot, current craze.
Bagby deserves a bit of credit for keeping up with current events. However,
Corpse Candle shows little insight into folk-rock. The woman performer is the only
folk-rock creator depicted, and she seems like a failure both as a musician and a human being.
Corpse Candle doesn't actually say that folk-rock is worthless.
But it doesn't show anything positive about the folk-rock movement either.
The best real-life folk-rock is a positive achievement, that deserves a better treatment than Corpse Candle.
UPDATE: Since I first wrote this, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan poet and playwright, universally considered a major writer.
His poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is quoted in detail (Chapter 2).
It is also the subject of a folk-rock composition by the woman singer.
The narrator seems underwhelmed by this musical version, regarding it as dismal.
This folk-rock musical version becomes a subject referred to throughout Corpse Candle.
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" (1965), recorded by the Byrds, was a folk-rock version of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Perhaps the setting of "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", is a satire on folk-rock's enthusiasm
for mod musical versions of classic texts. In any case, I don't think the comedy-satire material
on "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" in Corpse Candle works very well.
Marlowe is also linked to the Greek myth that plays a key role in the solution of Murder's Little Helper.
These mid-1960's mysteries of Bagby stress literary allusions.
Christopher Marlowe is widely seen as gay. This aspect of his life is not discussed in Corpse Candle.
Still, it is perhaps yet another example of the numerous gay subtexts in Bagby's work.
Other verses are quoted in the same section of Corpse Candle (Chapter 2).
These begin "My love can pipe, my love can sing".
These are by George Peele, a contemporary of Marlowe. They play a more limited role in the story.
A passage looks at clothes worn by narrator Bagby (middle of Chapter 15). This starts out with
a discussion of how black tie is sometimes worn at the University. This is one of only a few passages in
Corpse Candle dealing with faculty life. I could have used more of this -
the novel looks at some students, but only rarely at the faculty or campus institutions,
aside from the ecology professor.
Immediately following in the same discussion, there is a look at how such clothes can be transformed.
Two in the Bush
Two in the Bush (1976) is a late novel with the Inspector. It has mainly unlikable characters,
and is not much fun to read. But it has a few interesting touches. It is at its best in the opening (Chapters 1, 2)
and when Schmidt is reasoning out the solution (Chapter 8).
Two in the Bush recalls Corpse Candle, in that it opens with narrator Bagby's account of
his own personal life and living arrangements. These form the setting for the crime.
Like Corpse Candle, Two in the Bush raises ecological concerns.
These are less central than in Corpse Candle. Still, they show awareness. SPOILERS:
- The hawk is an endangered species (middle of Chapter 1).
This scene also gives Two in the Bush its title.
(A different idea related to the title is provided near the book's end, with the English company "Bird in Hand".)
- The energy crisis, and conserving energy (end of Chapter 4).
This is a variant on the author's books where all of the suspects live in one apartment house.
Here, the suspects all live in one city block. They have easy access to each others' homes through a shared back garden.
The garden surrounded by houses and apartments forms an architectural setting for the case (Chapter 1).
The garden was made by merging all the backyards of the houses into one shared space.
There is a similar communal garden in Helen McCloy's Panic (1944).
I also liked the spiral staircases going down from balconies into the garden (last part of Chapter 2).
People can look from one building into another, across the garden. This recalls
the ability to see one tower from another in The Original Carcase.
The common garden, shared by all the homes in the block, is run as a cooperative (start of Chapter 1).
This recalls the cooperative kitchen in The Corpse that Refused to Stay Dead (1952) (Chapters 5, 6).
See my list of Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses
in mystery fiction and science fiction.
An Angry Man
In The Body in the Basket, narrator Bagby thinks Horsham looks better when Horsham is angry (Chapter 1).
But John Jackson in Two in the Bush undergoes the reverse effect.
Bagby starts out by noting how attractive Jackson is, during their first meeting (middle of Chapter 2).
But later, as Jackson gets meaner and meaner in his comments, Bagby doesn't have anything good to say about him.
The situation of Horsham and Jackson are not exactly the same. Horsham is genuinely angry,
whereas Jackson is more cold-bloodedly mean. Bagby also links Jackson's attitudes to
"law and order" politics, something Bagby disdains (middle of Chapter 3).
The grandnephew Gordon Hobbes is well-dressed. We first see him in a tuxedo (Chapter 1).
Then he enters the novel as an active character, dressed to the nines in
white tie and tails (middle of Chapter 5).
The book stresses how elegant he looks. This recalls the tails worn in Dead Drunk (middle of Chapter 1).
Both books emphasize how great these men appear.
When not in formal wear, Gordon is elaborately casual, in shorts without a shirt (Chapter 1).
There is an elaborate account in the solution, of how one of the suspects manages his clothes (Chapter 8).
This is one of Bagby's patented detailed explorations of a subject. It involves a comparison
with another man's behavior with his own apparel. We get a look at how some men managed their clothes in 1976.
This recalls another detailed snapshot account of a contemporary custom,
the charity fund-raising effort for the Heart Fund in Murder's Little Helper.
Jeremiah X. Gibson
As "Hampton Stone", the author wrote a series of books about Assistant District Attorney
Jeremiah X. Gibson, who investigates criminals in Manhattan. Strictly speaking, Gibson
is employed by New York County, the county which consists of Manhattan.
The Stone books are often narrated by another Van Dine style "invisible narrator":
although Malcolm T. Macauley is a fellow Asst. District Attorney like Gibson,
there are whole scenes where he rarely says anything,
simply accompanying Gibson on their investigations and recording what he sees.
The two men are usually referred to by their nicknames of Gibby and Mac. Their
District Attorney boss is called the Old Man, like the boss of the detective agency
in Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op tales.
Interpreting New York City as a Social System
Gibby and Mac are experts on life in New York City, including its business, political
and sociological systems. They resemble a bit the archaeologist heroes of another of the author's series,
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. Just as Mulligan and Hunt are authorities about the culture of many
traditional societies they explore around the world, so are Gibby and Mac similarly deeply
knowledgeable about contemporary New York.
Gibby and Mac frequently "interpret" for the reader, people and events they meet in New York.
Gibby and Mac can meet a businessman, cop or government official, and offer the reader
a detailed account of the subtleties of that person's behavior, attitudes and roles
within New York's social system. Similarly, the Mulligan & Hunt books are full of scenes
where the pair offer interpretations of people and events in some traditional culture.
Mulligan and Hunt can do this because they are professional anthropologists;
Gibby and Mac's expertise is based on their years of exploring New York as
Assistant District Attorneys. In practice, Gibby and Mac might be said to be
unofficial "anthropologists" too, experts in the culture of New York.
When the Hampton Stone novels were reprinted in the early 1970's in Paper Library paperback editions,
Gibson was depicted on the covers as a hip, cool dude in seventies fashions,
apparently modeled after actor Steve McQueen. He looks great - but utterly unlike
the character in the novel, a sober young District Attorney who is always looking for a chance
to loosen his tie and collar. The Paper Library editions (mainly 1971-1972)
feature simple but form-fitting shirts that show off the hero's muscles, and dramatic bell-bottom pants.
The clothes are a form of Mod fashion.
The same publishers reprinted Kendell Foster Crossen's
Milo March novels, with March modeled on the covers after another hip actor, James Coburn.
The Corpse in the Corner Saloon
The Corpse in the Corner Saloon (1948) is the first Gibby novel.
The Corpse in the Corner Saloon has serious problems with sexism.
Both a suspect (end of Chapter 2) and narrator Mac (near start of Chapter 3) justify
men slapping women. This is just wrong. And makes the novel impossible to recommend.
The book is far from good, anyway. It is mainly routine.
Sleuths: Differences between this Debut and Later Novels
Gibby and Mac have features not included or much emphasized in later novels
(most aspects below come from Chapter 1).
In this first novel, as well as later ones, the fact that Gibby is a former cop who
eventually went to law school is emphasized. What is not as much mentioned in later books is narrator Mac's
background as a lawyer with a degree from Columbia, part of the Ivy League.
This makes Mac sound upper middle class or upper class. Gibby and Mac thus become
an idealized working class hero, and his upper class partner/friend/admirer.
This recalls The Original Carcase, with its ethnic hero John Bragioni and upper crust Ted Edwards
who admires him. Edwards is clearly in love with Bragioni, and the gay subtext in The Original Carcase is strong.
One wonders if there is a similar subtext between Gibby and Mac in The Corpse in the Corner Saloon.
Mac is depicted as the only fellow worker who can influence or restrain Gibby's excesses.
This is part of their long-term characterization. In later books, this is played a bit for laughs.
But here one wonders if this "influence" of Mac on Gibby suggests that Gibby too has feelings for Mac.
Narrator Mac is briefly depicted as a man who writes up Gibby's cases into books (Chapter ).
This is exactly what narrator Bagby does with Inspector Schmidt's cases in the author's other series.
I don't recall references to this idea in most later Gibby novels.
Gibby has a past incident where he hit a fellow prosecutor, a man with political connections.
This is rarely mentioned in later novels. The "two-fisted hero" was a cultural ideal in this era.
But one suspects that even in 1948, readers were none too enthused about a "hero" who failed
to control violent impulses. And the incident lacks believability: in real life,
slugging a colleague would get you fired and unable to find other employment.
It is thus good that this bit of Gibby's history did not become part of his permanent persona.
Another problem: Gibby is shown as indifferent to getting a search warrant before searching a suspect's home (Chapter 2).
This is bad all around: immoral, a violation of democratic rights and traditions,
and bad for getting evidence that will stand up in court.
The Old Man
The Old Man, Gibby and Mac's boss and New York's District Attorney,
is depicted as a man with Society connections, and very well dressed in an expensive suit (Chapter 5).
This is plausible: many District Attorneys of great cities in the past were drawn from elites.
The Corpse in the Corner Saloon has some decent, although not brilliant, mystery ideas:
- Gibby comes up with two clues that suggest the poisoning was murder and not suicide (Chapter 1).
- There is a steady series of revelations about a photograph (Chapter 2).
Photography also plays a role in Murder's Little Helper.
A victim wears a loud checked overcoat. It is conspicuous, and its loudness is in poor taste (Chapter 1).
In fact, it is stated that no other man would wear such a coat (near start of Chapter 3).
This reflects an era when nearly everyone wanted to be well-dressed.
It is clear that neither Stein nor his characters had any idea of how flamboyant clothes
would become in the future. A loud checked overcoat would be mild compared to later fashions.
Bartenders Bucky and Jocko are men who dress alike (Chapter 2), a feature sometimes found in Stein novels:
Bucky and Jocko have a young assistant bartender Jerry, who also dresses exactly like them.
This is ascribed to Jerry's "hero worship" of them (near start of Chapter 3).
This is clearly a polite euphemism for a gay attraction Jerry has for Bucky and Jocko.
Unfortunately Bucky is an extremely unlikable person, and this sinks any fun to be found in the men's common clothes.
The entertaining possibilities of common apparel will be explored much more successfully
in the more light-hearted Death Ain't Commercial.
- See especially Death Ain't Commercial, in which a pop band pushes common clothes to comic extremes.
- The photograph in Murder's Little Helper.
- The brutal macho men in tuxedos for the fancy banquet in The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still.
The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still
The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still (1950) is a Gibson novel.
Realism and Social Problems
The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still takes place among crooked cops,
government officials and mobsters in Brooklyn. Such portraits of civic corruption were long
a speciality of Black Mask magazine. The novel keeps the depiction "realistic":
the heroes don't get much involved in fights, gunplay or big action scenes, but stick to investigation;
the gangsters are definitely not glamorized; we don't go to nightclubs or meet gun-molls.
Instead, there is a sober look at the costs of civic corruption. We are in the
underworld setting of many hard-boiled novels, but the book avoids the flamboyant
flourishes of much hard-boiled fiction.
I wish I could like The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still better. It deserves some credit
for exploring a social problem. However, the book lacks inventiveness, and often seems dull.
The comedy and surrealism that is so pleasant in some of the Bagby books is also missing here.
Political notes: Hero Gibson admirably condemns prejudice against ethic groups (Chapter 1).
Unfortunately, the narrator comes close to suggesting that it's fine for men to hit their girlfriends
Anthropology of New York City
The first chapter of The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still offers a detailed look
at some aspects of New York City. It is almost "anthropological" in scope,
offering an analysis of government, corruption and idealistic social reformers.
This is one of the best parts of the novel. Like other such looks in Stone novels,
we get plenty of "interpretation" from Gibby and Mac, pointing out subtleties of
the social system.
The opening also includes a portrait of old slum buildings on Manhattan's
Lower East Side. The crime scene building is so old, that it still has water pumps
in its back yard, from the days before Manhattan had running water!
This is a nice detail. It has an anthropological feel.
As in other books by Stein, the architecture of the crime scene and its backyard landscape are
described in detail. And the events of the crime are carefully depicted against these locales.
Unfortunately, this architecture is quite simple, compared with some other books by the author.
The victim and the heroine both live in the same building. Their rooms are near duplicates
of each other (start of Chapter 2). This is a surreal touch.
Sports: A Skeptical View
A philanthropist runs a Boys Club for slum kids in Brooklyn. It emphasizes sports for these kids.
Gibby is skeptical that such sports training does any good in their lives (Chapter 1).
This is consistent with the skepticism about football in Coffin Corner and Dead Drunk.
All of these works are especially critical of the adults who run sports programs
and recruit youth for them.
An early section (middle of Chapter 1) is structured like a play. It consists of pure dialogue,
preceded by the name of the person speaking: just like a printed play.
Such play sections occasionally turn up in mystery fiction.
See my list of Dramatic Dialogues.
An all-night cafeteria is the hangout of both Brooklyn politicians and cops (first half of Chapter 3).
It has an all-male clientele, at this time of night. Death Takes a Paying Guest included
a Washington DC cafeteria, that was considerably more "respectable".
A testimonial banquet the suspects attend, filled with racketeers, is a symbol of civic corruption.
A policeman Schaefer is wearing a tuxedo, like other officials that came from the banquet (Chapters 1, 2).
His formal wear is a symbol of his involvement in dirty politics.
The evening clothes suggest a sense of swagger. And also that the cop has stepped over the line
and is involved in big-money enterprises that are contrary to his duty.
Later, a racketeer's henchman, Pete Stewart, is similarly seen in evening clothes after the banquet (Chapter 3).
The men at the banquet are a group of men who dress alike, like the pop group in Death Ain't Commercial.
The policeman and the henchman are brutal macho men though, unlike the pop singers.
Gibby disapproves of brutal cop Schaefer, even though he is dressed up in a tuxedo.
Similarly Inspector Schmidt disapproves of the victim in Dead Drunk,
even though he is dressed up in white tie and tails.
The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still is a whodunit. It opens with a murder by an unknown killer,
although clearly committed by one of the book's criminal or corrupt characters, and identifies the
murderer in the last chapter. Other authors have mixed hard-boiled settings and a whodunit plot:
not only Dashiell Hammett, but
Baynard Kendrick's The Last Express (1937) come to mind.
Gibby identifies the killer for a simple but sound reason
in the last chapter, mainly dealing with who has a realistic opportunity for pulling off the crime.
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends (1953) is a minor, mainly routine Gibson novel.
It has some inventiveness in its middle section (Chapters 4, 5, 6, beginning of 7).
It doesn't take much advantage of its detective hero; this generic book might just as easily
have been an Inspector Schmidt mystery.
It seems implausible that an experienced government official
like Gibby would behave with such a reckless disregard for danger, when exploring a crime scene.
Many books centered on the banking industry look at high finance. Complex financial activities,
honest and crooked, are their subjects. The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends takes the opposite tack:
its banking activities are of the simplest, most low-level kind. There is satire about
how simple-minded this bank department's work is, and how low-skilled its employees are.
It is pointed out that most people in the department don't have to think:
probably the ultimate insult for a rationalist, idea-oriented detective writer like Stein.
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends contains an earnest plea, about why it is better
to have ex-convicts out on parole, and employed in jobs, rather than in prison (Chapter 7).
This argument seems more relevant than ever today. The businessman who makes the argument sees ex-convicts
as people with career potential: men who can succeed at professions and make a contribution to society.
Both the victim and Jeb Wilberforce are middle-aged men, who spend time helping less fortunate people in trouble.
Neither has any sign of a heterosexual romantic life or marriage. Perhaps these are portraits of "quietly gay" men.
Mystery Plot: Crime Scheme
SPOILERS. In The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends a bank official is murdered,
and most of the suspects work for the bank. Most readers will immediately guess that
something crooked is going on at the bank, which has led to the killing.
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends duly creates such a Criminal Scheme as its main motive.
Strangely, however, the possibility that such a scheme might be transpiring is not
broached until the finale, when it is treated as a Big Surprise.
Unfortunately, the existence of such a scheme is going to be obvious to most readers from the beginning.
The work of the bank department where the crime is centered, is set forth early on (first half of Chapter 3).
The crime scheme itself, based on this work, is revealed during the solution (end of Chapter 9).
It is a simple, low tech, but plausible scheme.
Checks, the subject of the department's work, were a subject of perennial interest in mystery fiction of the era.
See "Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers" (1959) in People Vs. Withers & Malone by
Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice.
Mystery Plot: Clues
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends skillfully embeds clues to a couple of mystery subplots:
Both of these subsidiary subplots are solved almost immediately. Neither has much to do with the book's
main murder mystery.
- The lines in the dust on the desk. This is pleasantly geometric (Chapter 4).
The author sometimes used geometry-based clues in other books, such as the clue
to the gold statuette mystery in Three - With Blood. The footprints in
Pistols for Two are also in simple geometric lines.
- SPOILER. The data about the sofa, hidden in the mass of information about the chaotic search
in the secretary's apartment (clues set forth in end of Chapter 5, solved in Chapter 6).
The necklace hoop is a nice idea (start of Chapter 5). It is metalwork that serves two functions:
in this it recalls the ingenious use of the silver in The Corpse With Sticky Fingers.
(The two functions of the hoop in The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends are as jewelry,
and as impediment to a killing.)
Another metal object, more distantly related to the above, is the gold statuette in Three - With Blood.
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends has some brief but amusing comments on the creation
of the right male image for the business world:
The young ex-con works as a draftsman for the architectural firm. Draftsmen occasionally show up
in other Stein novels.
- The imposing buildings and dress code of a stuffy bank (start of Chapter 1).
- A photographer enhances his business executive subjects to look "more masculine" (Chapter 4).
- An architectural firm specializes in dignified, impressive looks for business offices (end of Chapter 6).
This firm seems more genuinely talented than the other image-providers, and more sympathetic.
- The use of Jermyn Street shirts to look good while in shirt sleeves (near the start of Chapter 7).
The Corpse Who Had Too Many Friends does a decent enough job describing the settings of its crimes:
However, none of these is unusual, and don't have much bearing on the crimes or mystery plot.
They are thus less impressive than the architectural settings of better mysteries.
- A hotel suite, with a sitting room and two bedrooms opening off it (Chapters 1, 2).
- The banker victim's old, traditional Manhattan house (Chapters 3, 4).
- The secretary's small apartment (end of Chapter 5, Chapter 6).
The basement entrance to the victim's house is carefully described (middle of Chapter 4).
It recalls the fact that the author liked underground settings.
The Kid Who Came Home with a Corpse
The Kid Who Came Home with a Corpse (1972) is the last of the Gibson novels.
It is not structured as a farewell appearance though - just as another book in the series.
While the title is catchy and strongly alliterative, it doesn't have much to do
with the actual events of the book.
Mac is not an "invisible narrator" here. Instead, he is the active focus of the first two thirds
of the novel, narrating his own dramatic adventures.
Gibson hardly appears till the end, when he shows up and helps solve the mystery.
There are SPOILERS in the rest of this article.
Male bonding is evoked in the first chapter,
when a mere acquaintance (Ralph Henderson) from Mac's Club pretends to be a close buddy.
He makes a series of hand and arm gestures indicating buddyhood.
This fairly young man is later depicted as being "fatherly" in his concerns for
other men, an interesting piece of characterization (start of Chapter 2).
Male bonding also appears later, when that character's male secretary appears,
and we learn about the two men's close relationship.
The secretary is depicted as actually being in love with his boss.
The word "love" is explicitly used (Chapter 8, end of Chapter 9).
The secretary is depicted as attracted to women, however,
and it is not clear if his feelings towards his boss are sexual.
The secretary is one of the book's most interesting characters.
Two kinds of men's clothes are evoked in detail:
men's clothes and fashion being a perennial interest of the author:
SPOILER. The book develops a nice mini-mystery about the two kinds of clothes, and the secretary's
involvement with them (end of Chapter 5, Chapter 8, solved in the start of Chapter 10).
It has a surreal feel, in its premises, and is vivid and colorful.
It is easily solved. But the presence of this mystery subplot is a Good Thing.
- Business clothes. The handsome business man Ralph Henderson in the opening is described as wearing
dressy pinstripe suits. This is an early version of what will later in 1975
be called the "dress for success" look, although those terms aren't used.
- Mod, hippie or swinging fashions of the era.
These are related to a whole series of "hip" New York City professions (end of Chapter 5).
Although the book never makes this explicit, many of these professions are often associated with gay men.
A visit to an apartment building, includes a good mini-mystery
about how a character made a sudden exit from an apartment and apparently the building,
without making a sound (Chapter 7). This has a howdunit or even "impossible crime" feel.
The solution is given within a few pages. SPOILER. The building's layout
includes one of the author's favorite subjects, fire stairs.
The opening sections have the characters behaving mysteriously.
Two thirds through the book, a killing suddenly occurs (Chapter 8). We also immediately learn more
about the characters and their situation. This drastically changes the rest of the book into
a crime investigation into these events. This final section is competently crafted,
but not especially good.
It is one of those mysteries where the sleuth investigates
in turn the possibility that each suspect is guilty. We get a nearly mechanical
permutation, looking at possible patterns of guilt and innocence among the suspects.
While one can applaud the author's attempt to write a real mystery, in which plot is explored
in depth and taken seriously, one also has to recognize that this section is not deeply imaginative.
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt
Under his own name Aaron Marc Stein, the author published eighteen mystery novels (1940 - 1955)
about archeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. The pair travel to
archeological sites all over the world, solving mysteries as amateur sleuths.
They also solve crimes in the United States. Tim Mulligan's full name is
Timothy Francis Mulligan: see Three - With Blood (Chapter 1).
Both archeologists have Ph. D.'s, and are sometimes called Dr. Mulligan and Dr. Hunt.
The duo seem to have equal archaeological skills and expertise on the countries they visit.
Both Tim and Elsie are intelligent, and they seem to share in the detective work equally.
They often discuss their cases together, in scenes that recall the detective heroes of
other Stein series discussing the case with their Watsons.
These scenes show us the sleuths' evolving ideas throughout the book.
They sometimes contain the detectives' partial solutions to the crimes and various mystery subplots,
long before the book's final chapter.
Elsie and Tim also like to analyze the intriguing non-crime events and
settings around them, sometime coming up with surprising insights into and interpretations of these as well.
These events might not involve crime, but they are structured as tiny little mysteries,
things the reader sees that soon get interpreted by Tim and Elsie.
Elsie Mae Hunt's hair is always getting loose, and falling down around her head.
As a recurring bit of business, this recalls Inspector Schmidt taking off his shoes
because his feet hurt: both make a sleuth look more casual.
But it also reflects that Elsie is far more interested in
the fascinating world around her, than she is in her appearance.
There is a feminist subtext.
Couples as Detectives
When Mulligan and Hunt were first created in 1940, couples as amateur detectives were becoming a big deal.
Craig Rice, The Lockridges, Kelley Roos
all published books starring such couples. Perhaps coincidentally,
all of these writers had ties to the Van Dine School, as did Stein himself.
Just before this, in the 1930's, pulp writers liked tales about couples,
often having them as not-too-hard-boiled private eyes: Dashiell Hammett's
The Thin Man (1933), T.T. Flynn,
Theodore Tinsley, Hugh Pentecost's
Carole Trevor and Maxwell Blythe.
The "couples" tales were often full of comedy, with the couples being zany-but-sophisticated figures
who lead glamorous lives and who find light-hearted adventure.
Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt are somewhat in this mode, with a light touch
and an occasional zest for mischief. But they also have a serious side,
being first-rate archaeologists with formidable archeological, historical and linguistic skills.
But all of these other "couples" authors usually set their tales in the big cities that were the typical
stomping grounds of Van Dine School detectives. Stein's tales were different,
sometimes being set in remote, exotic locations.
In this period, several mystery writers turned to Caribbean or Latin American settings:
Lawrence G. Blochman's Blow-Down (1939),
Richard Sale's Destination Unknown (1940)
and his novellas, "Home Is the Hangman" (1940) and "Beam to Brazil" (1943) in Home Is the Hangman,
Norbert Davis' The Mouse in the Mountain (1943),
and Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943).
These provided glamorous settings for mystery and adventure, yet avoided the
World War II war zones in Europe and Asia. Stein's work might be part of this trend.
Death Takes a Paying Guest
Death Takes a Paying Guest (1947) is the second of two Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt mysteries
Stein published in 1947. It was preceded by We Saw Him Die, a mystery involving cryptography,
reportedly Stein's real-life specialty during his US Army service in World War II.
(See the career overview and reminiscence by Francis M. Nevins.)
The first half of Death Takes a Paying Guest (Chapters 1-4, start of 5) is much better than the
book's second half. The first half is a sparkling comic novel, with odd characters
and colorful settings. It also has pleasant plot developments.
The author is in there trying in the second half, but nothing works as well.
There is a decent mystery plot idea in the solution at the book's end though (second half of Chapter 9).
Mystery Plot: The Motive
The motive and main action in Death Takes a Paying Guest are based on a hackneyed
mystery cliche. Admittedly, this cliche is logically sound, and its treatment in Death Takes a Paying Guest
is reasonably plausible. But no one needs yet one more book based on this idea.
BIG SPOILERS. We are talking about a room in a hotel where something valuable is hidden,
and to which everyone tries to get access.
Mystery Subplot: The Disposal of the Body
SPOILERS. Elsie Mae Hunt does good detective work early on, when she comes up with
an explanation for the disposal of the body (first part of Chapter 4).
This solution builds pleasantly on the architecture and settings of the crime scene.
Mystery Subplot: The Handwriting
The other best mystery subplot concerns the victim's handwriting (set forth in the last part of Chapter 4).
The book offers four different solutions:
This mystery subplot is linked to identity and to what we now call identity theft.
However, it is not a straightforward case of someone stealing someone's else's identity.
- Elsie Mae has a one-sentence suggestion that the documents might be forged (first part of Chapter 5).
- David Weaver's solution is mildly ingenious, but has problems, as Elsie Mae points out
(first part of Chapter 5).
- Mrs. Purnell's solution is fun, but far-fetched. It leads to a lot of enjoyable hypothesis-spinning
by Elsie Mae (first part of Chapter 5). BIG SPOILERS. This solution depends on doubles: men who look alike.
Doubles return as a plot possibility in Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser (first part of Chapter 5).
They are a Stein theme.
- Tim Mulligan's solution (at the book's end) offers a
"simple idea that ingeniously solves and explains an impossible looking situation".
Such solutions are always most admirable and welcome in mystery fiction (second half of Chapter 9).
A somewhat related mystery subplot involving handwriting and identity is in
Calamity Town (1942) by Ellery Queen.
Mystery Subplot: Who Done It
There is a sound clue to the killer, set forth in the solution at the book's end.
SPOILERS. This involves duplicate objects. Tim gives an intelligent, original speech where
he expresses skepticism about duplicate objects, whether he finds them in his anthropological work
or in a mystery investigation. This is an interesting example of a "principle of reasoning",
one I don't recall in other books.
Death Takes a Paying Guest is one of the most female-centric of Stein's books.
Apart from Mr. Sang, David Weaver and the police, most of the characters are women.
Most scenes are from the Point-of-View of Elsie Mae Hunt.
However, at the end it is Tim Mulligan who solves the mystery. Elsie Mae Hunt chimes in
during the solution to add a few points, but mainly it is Tim's ideas that crack the case.
However, Elsie Mae Hunt does some good detective work in the novel's first half.
Satire: Washington D.C.
Death Takes a Paying Guest takes a satiric view of the housing situation in Washington D.C.
In that desperately overcrowded town, visitors have to stay in private homes that take in
"paying guests" as roomers. Stein had served in the Army in World War II, and he might well have seen
this situation at first hand. Death Takes a Paying Guest is set after the 1945 end of the war -
but book describes the housing problem as a continuation of the situation in the war years.
Death Takes a Paying Guest also takes a satiric jab at some government institutions.
The US State Department is satirized in its ultra-correct employee David Weaver.
One suspects the State Department doesn't actually mind such satire, which depicts its employees
as perfect and polished in every way. It's part of the mystique of State. The Black Mountain (1954)
by Rex Stout offers a related look at polished young State Department staffers.
From a perspective of many decades later, there are intriguing paradoxes about how Washington lived.
These people are elite officials in the world's most powerful nation.
But they live in single rooms in dubious private homes, share bathrooms, and eat in basement cafeterias.
They are there to perform Government service, not to be big shots or high-livers.
Anthropology: Washington D.C.
The book's look at Washington DC has the anthopological feel of many Stein/Bagby books,
an informative look inside a way of life. Typically the city examined in his books is New York;
here it is Washington.
Stein also includes a mini-essay on how men juggle cafeteria trays (middle of Chapter 3).
This is a tiny passage. But like other Stein.Bagby mini-essays,
it records and preserves a bit of lore about how people lived in that era.
The floor of the house where the murder takes place, has the complex architecture Stein likes
(first part of Chapter 2). This gets extended, with another house where one can see the murder house
(last part of Chapter 2).
The murder house is an old building, that has been renovated with new floor plans and extensions.
Such renovations also show up in other Stein books, such as Dead on Arrival,
The Corpse that Refused to Stay Dead.
All the architectural areas in Death Takes a Paying Guest are rectilinear.
This is common in real life, and might just be a coincidence. But it might also reflect
Stein's interest in rectilinear regions.
Three - With Blood
Three - With Blood (1950) is a Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt mystery.
It takes place in Jalisco, Mexico, at the real-life Semana Santa (Holy Week) festival in the real
city of Chapala, near the famed Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest freshwater lake.
Three - With Blood has the same structure as the later Mask for Murder,
at least as far as setting and story elements go:
Three - With Blood opens in the big Jalisco city of Guadalajara (Chapter 1).
The novel is full of imagery associated with Jalisco and Guadalajara: mariachi music,
tequila, sombreros (Chapter 2). The novel accurately portrays the area as a magnet for international tourists.
Already, in the late 1940's Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
during a stay in Chapala. The English writers known as "Dale Chandos" would write
about Lake Chapala in Village in the Sun (1945) and House in the Sun (1949).
Later one of the same team would publish mysteries as Bruce Buckingham.
- Both start out in a cosmopolitan Mexican town that caters to international tourists:
Guadalajara in Three - With Blood, Merida in Mask for Murder.
- Both then move to a nearby smaller, more traditional town during a local festival, for the bulk of the novel:
Chapala in Three - With Blood, Tizimin in Mask for Murder.
- In both Tim and Elsie go there to track down a rumored archeological treasure that
reportedly has been unearthed, but whose whereabouts are unknown.
The depiction of foreign countries and cultures in Three - With Blood and Mask for Murder
recalls "The Purple Emperor" (circa 1897) by Robert W. Chambers.
"The Purple Emperor" looks at small towns and traditional lifestyles in Brittany, just as Stein does in Mexico.
Both are filled with eccentric characters. And "The Purple Emperor" has a recently discovered "treasure"
found in an unknown location, just as Stein will later. In "The Purple Emperor" this is a rare butterfly,
in Stein we have archeological treasures.
Three - With Blood has Tim Mulligan male-bonding with a young Mexican man (Chapter 2).
The man is intelligent, good looking and articulate. He has lived in both Mexico and the
United States, and like Tim, is bilingual and multi-cultural. The bonding involves the institution of
cuate: men who regard each other as "twins". We also see two sympathetic Indian servants
who call each other cuate. Throughout the novel, cuate is treated in idealized fashion
as a positive experience.
An interesting discussion looks at how Elsie Mae, Tim's long-time partner, fits into
this sort of male-bonding between Tim and another man (middle of Chapter 4).
A different sort of male bonding is also depicted: that between master (patron)
and personal servant (mozo). This is shown as extremely close, but not necessarily
good for either man involved. It get a tribute paid to it as an idealized relationship
(Chapter 5), but much of the rest of the novel looks at its dark side (Chapter 2).
The book says "The Chapala fiesta is among the gayest" (opening of Chapter 4).
Literally, it is only saying the festival is bright and lively. But one wonders if there
is a hidden reference. The real life presence of Tennessee Williams a few years earlier
makes one wonder if the city were attracting gay tourists.
Science, Reason and the Imaginative
Three - With Blood opens with a fine passage describing rumors of a golden statuette,
and Tim and Elsie's attitude towards this. The book stresses that Tim and Elsie's
world view is grounded in science. They are admired and praised for this science-based approach.
This was from an era, in which there was a consensus among educated people of the worth of science.
The book also praises Tim and Elsie for their science-based willingness to investigate,
to take active steps in pursuit of truth.
Three - With Blood recognizes the joy and imagination that stories like
the golden statue can bring to people. It does not take an anti-imagination attitude,
or suggest life should be lived among dour dullness. But it also recognizes that
imagination is to be seen as what it is: the imaginative. And that reality
is based in scientific truth, learned through investigating evidence.
Jesus Guadalupe is associated with the production of drinks. Much of the time he works as
the town's leading and most graceful barkeeper. But he also runs the town's soda pop bottling plant.
He does this all by himself - the machinery at the plant is a one-man operation.
This is a rare look at manufacturing in a classical era detective novel.
It reminds us that Matt Erridge, Stein's later series detective, is a skilled professional engineer
who sometimes works at upgrading factories and their production machinery.
The crooked Porfirio is billed as the region's leading manufacturer of fake antiquities.
He must have technical methods of producing these - but they are not discussed in the novel.
SPOILER. There is a non-violent action taken by the townspeople (end of Chapter 4).
This is far from a portrait of full scale Gandhi-like passive resistance:
It is not politically motivated, not organized, and is comic in tone.
Still, it is suggestive, unusual and dramatic. It offers hints of echoing real
The apartment used by Cardito and the street outside it are discussed in pleasing detail (Chapter 2).
However, there is nothing too eccentric or unusual about this structure.
Still, it is an example of the Golden Age interest in architecture.
The main murder mystery is not very good. None of the book's murders
lead to an interesting puzzle. We get an elaborate investigation of where various suspects were
before, during and after the first murder (Chapters 3, first half of 4). This is highly detailed,
but not very clever. The book explores different scenarios of how various suspects
might have been involved in the killing, looking at both their motives and possible movements.
The finale includes another such scenario, this time with the true killer.
All of these scenarios involve detailed story telling, which might please readers, a little.
But most of this material is not really creative.
The third murder is the best clued of the book's killings, with aspects pointing to the killer.
It also has some mildly interesting features of movement of the killer.
Better is the subplot about the treasure: a statue of a cockerel made out of gold.
The cockerel statues are well imagined and described. They also show an ingenuity
of plot treatment, with a genuine and unusual clue embedded in the tale.
(Puzzle situation set forth in Chapter 2, solved during the brief discussion
with the police chief in the middle of Chapter 5).
Cardito's romantic problems form another subplot. They have a mystery too:
why is he behaving this way, and what lies behind it?
(His odd behavior set forth in the second half of Chapter 2, solved in second half of Chapter 4).
This non-murder mystery also shows pleasant ingenuity, and is more interesting that the book's murder mysteries.
Unfortunately, the explanation also shows callous behavior on Cardito's part.
I agree with Elsie's criticisms of this behavior, of which she disapproves.
Three - With Blood is best in its two long opening chapters, which take place
before the murder. These set up the characters, background, and mysteries about
Cardito's behavior and the cockerel statue. After the murder occurs at the end of Chapter 2,
the book takes a nosedive, into a mainly routine murder mystery. There are some good sections
later which extend and solve the ideas and riddles in the opening (second half of Chapter 4, middle of 5).
Pistols for Two
Pistols for Two (1951) is a Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt mystery.
It's a minor work, lacking much substance as a mystery plot or as a story.
Pistols for Two takes place in Manhattan. It is set in the world of high-priced art
and antiquities. It doesn't have much of interest to say about this world.
And the book lacks the interesting settings of foreign countries or archaeological sites
that grace better Mulligan-Hunt novels.
Pistols for Two includes some real-life New York institutions: The Cloisters museum,
and the Princeton Club. This seems cute, at first. But the author is treating these real places
gingerly, perhaps to avoid lawsuits or giving offense, and we never learn much about them at all.
For example, the depiction of The Cloisters is limited to a single basement workroom;
we never see the museum as a whole, meet its staff
other than a night watchman, or learn much about its activities. Author Stein might have been better
off if he'd invented an imaginary museum in a fictitious city, and explored it in detail.
Pistols for Two suffers from stereotypes. Two art dealers are reported Levantine (Chapter 2).
Their provincial clothes and manners (Chapter 2), their sexual mores (middle of Chapter 5),
and their morals as dealers (Chapter 6), come in for criticism.
This sort of ethnic stereotyping is deplorable.
A comedy sequence involves a woman getting pinched on the subway (Chapter 3).
Pistols for Two doesn't defend such pinching. But it does take a pretty frivolous
attitude towards what is after all sexual harassment.
Class and the Police
Some aspects of Pistols for Two are supposed to be comic; but they fall flat because they lack plausibility.
Mulligan and Hunt have just spent the night working as the book opens. They are covered with grime from artifacts,
and in work clothes. They look terrible. All the police they encounter immediately conclude Mulligan and Hunt are street thugs.
This is played for comedy. Some of the cops persist in this view, despite Mulligan and Hunt telling who they are.
I didn't find this plausible. Studies show that most Americans can look at another American, and tell their
yearly income within ten thousand dollars. You can cover archaeologists in dirt, like Mulligan and Hunt here,
and most people would still recognize them as professional people, educated and socially prestigious.
No one would think they were hoodlums or Bowery tramps. This should be especially true of the police,
who meet dozens of diverse people every day, and who should recognize educated professional types
like Mulligan and Hunt when they see them.
The main police homicide investigator Lt. Gregory is depicted as quite stupid throughout Pistols for Two.
I didn't find this plausible, either. Novels can include honest or crooked policemen, decent or mean ones,
and I'll find them believable. But a man this inept, whose sole investigative technique seems to be yelling at people,
just doesn't make sense as a major New York cop: he's head of detectives in his Manhattan precinct.
Mystery plot elements in Pistols for Two are unusually skimpy for a Stein novel.
They would hardly fill up a short story. The book is a full-fledged whodunit,
with two murders and a culprit revealed at the end. But the mystery shows only a little creativity.
Footprints are found around the crime scene (Chapter 1) and explained at the end (Chapter 6).
The original prints tell a colorful story (Chapter 1). They are also fun to read about.
The prints are unusual for a mystery novel, in that they are tracks through dewy grass, rather than in dirt.
SPOILER. Pistols for Two duly exploits this difference in its explanation (Chapter 6).
The dew aspects are mildly inventive. But this subplot is only mildly creative as a whole:
after all, footprint investigations have a huge history in mystery fiction.
SPOILER. The revelation about where the murders took place is mildly inventive (Chapter 6).
SPOILER. Pistols for Two gets one of the suspects involved with aspects of dueling,
in a couple of incidents (end of Chapter 2, end of Chapter 5). Connecting a modern day character plausibly with
the antique practice of dueling takes imagination.
Mask for Murder
Mask for Murder (1952) is a Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt mystery.
It takes place in Yucatan, Mexico, at the real-life Three Kings festival in the real
city of Tizimin.
The festival reflects ancient Mayan religious traditions. Stein incorporates these customs
into his plot (Chapter 4 is especially detailed). The look at a city with many unusual beliefs and activities,
recalls fantasy and science fiction novels such as Ursula K. LeGuin's Voices (2006).
It is unusual to read a mystery novel so thoroughly grounded outside of
contemporary Western culture.
A vividly detailed comic set-piece depicts a journey on a train (Chapters 2, 3).
Trains are a much-loved part of the mystery fiction of the era.
Also colorful: the description of hotel rooms in Tizimin (middle of Chapter 7).
They are startlingly minimalistic.
The Tizimin setting (Chapter 4) includes the architectural features
and unusual buildings popular in mystery fiction's Golden Age: the catacombs and patio.
The same chapter also has the landscape architecture
popular in Golden Age mysteries: the milpas, a rectangular cornfield with special features
linked to Mayan traditions. The milpas is in turn part of a larger rural landscape
centering on a traditional small house.
The mystery aspects of Mask for Murder are the book's weakest aspect.
The mystery events are elaborate and detailed. Stein doesn't skimp on mystery plotting:
there is a lot of it. But it doesn't seem very creative. It is therefore unclear whether
the whole later section of the book (Chapters 5 to the end) has much merit.
There are two not-closely-related puzzles:
Both culprits, thief and killer, are people whose lack of morals and poor character has been
stressed throughout the novel. This is logical and sensible.
- One puzzle involves the valuable Mayan mask: who took it,
and how and why is a sympathetic young Indian caught up in the mask theft?
This puzzle is OK. Stein at least provides a logical choice of thief. And a moderately
interesting, fairly complex backstory of the theft of the mask.
- The other puzzle is who is committing the murders. This is linked to a "surprise" motive,
that seemed awfully obvious to me. The murder events are logical, but otherwise uncreative.
There is a small, rather vague clue to the killer's identity, which is the very last thing
'pointed out at the end of the novel.
Moonmilk and Murder
Moonmilk and Murder (1955) is the last Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt mystery.
It is not structured in any way as a finale for the characters. It is "just another"
adventure for the duo.
The best part of Moonmilk and Murder is the opening, set in a cave in France (Chapter 1).
Tim and Elsie have gone there to look for Paleolithic cave paintings. The chapter mixes
vivid descriptions of exploring such caves, with imaginative thriller elements.
This opening explains what moonmilk is.
Later sections extend the ideas of the opening, a bit:
Stein likes underground settings.
- The end of Chapter 1 has Tim and Elsie making a deduction from the blowing air in the cave.
While this section hints broadly at their reasoning, their ideas are not spelled out in full
till later (middle of Chapter 2).
- The architecture of the caves is extended (second half of Chapter 4).
The opening chapter has only Tim and Elsie as characters. We have not yet met any of the book's suspects,
and we know nothing of the background or plot situations of the story.
Since the suspects, characters and plot background of Moonmilk and Murder will turn out to be
not that good, their absence in the opening is a Good Thing.
Male bonding is often depicted positively in Stein. But Moonmilk and Murder
offers a strongly negative take on relations between men (end of Chapter 2, start of Chapter 4).
In The Original Carcase, a character develops a huge crush on an outstanding man
he met in the service during World War II. This is seen as a good thing. SPOILERS.
Suspect Mike Jackson in Moonmilk and Murder develops a similar crush
on a handsome Frenchman while they are both working in the French Underground during the war.
But in Jackson's case, this is negative. He marries a woman after the war, but spends all his time
mooning over his lost relationship with the Frenchman. This comes close to wrecking his marriage,
and torments his wife. There is no explicit gay plot or characterization, but the story reads as a thinly disguised
account of a love triangle. It comes across as a Brokeback Mountain type of relationship,
of a gay man who has married a woman but who spends all his time and feelings lamenting
a lost gay relationship he had in his past.
The relationship between men in Moonmilk and Murder is seen unsympathetically.
The French male lover is characterized negatively. The husband's rejection of the wife is seen
as a victimization of her, one linked to sexism and misogyny.
Many of Stein's books offer positive accounts of men's clothes. However, in Moonmilk and Murder
the matching shirts worn by the two men are a symbol of their relationship,
and seen negatively (end of Chapter 2).
I confess I did not enjoy the triangle plot in Moonmilk and Murder. It is pretty grim.
Moonmilk and Murder offers a highly negative picture of traditional French life
in remote rural regions. By any standards, this depiction is unpleasant to read: enough to sink the novel.
Whether it is accurate or prejudiced is beyond my competence to assess.
Men of the region are depicted as violent, lowbrow, incompetent and misogynistic.
This remote rural region of France, informally known as Gascony, is seen as another of
Stein's "primitive" areas. However, it is not given any sort of traditional culture,
beyond a bit of French country cooking.
Matt Erridge was created in 1958, and became the star of a long running series of crime novels by
Aaron Marc Stein. Matt Erridge is a young American engineer, whose skill at factories and their machinery
takes him around the world. He leads a glamorous life: a sports car, world travel, lots of exciting experiences.
Matt Erridge is more an "action hero", than a detective. Erridge loves to get into fist fights and knife fights.
He seems to wander around, looking for trouble. As an amateur - he is NOT a private eye or a cop or a spy -
he seems to poke around and get involved with violent activities that are really none of his business.
These activities then form the center of one of the crime novels starring Matt Erridge.
I confess that I just don't like Matt Erridge. He seems like an obnoxiously violent guy.
Plus, I would much rather read a detective story, than a crime thriller about a bunch of fights.
The Crime Club, Stein's publishers, put out the first Matt Erridge book under their "Chase and Adventure" category,
while they published his Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt novels in their category "Favorite Sleuths".
Matt Erridge has a number of possible ancestors. The first chapter of Sitting Up Dead,
the first Matt Erridge book, shows Erridge in his "ordinary life", making plans to go on a blind date.
Matt Erridge resembles Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, in this opening.
He is a fresh young urban sophisticate, self-made, perhaps from an "ordinary American" background,
who is smart, articulate, breezy, well-dressed, an expert on gourmet food and sophisticated society,
and with an eye for pretty women. Matt Erridge narrates his books, and his "voice" and style of
expression in this opening chapter distinctly recall Archie.
However, later chapters show Matt Erridge with a lust for violence and fighting, that is very different from Archie.
Archie Goodwin on rare occasions gets involved with rough stuff. But mainly Archie is a practical man
who is trying to get a job done - and with no interest in violence. Matt Erridge with a yen
for violence, recalls more the tough private eyes and spies of the era.
Matt Erridge replaced Stein's own detective heroes Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt:
Stein stopped writing about Tim and Elsie, when he began the Matt Erridge series. Matt Erridge
shares some features in common with Tim and Elsie, though. Like them, he is a globe-trotter,
allowing Stein to set novels around the world. The first Matt Erridge book Sitting Up Dead
shows Matt with a fondness for historic sites in Italy. This recalls the way that
Tim and Elsie being archaeologists allowed Stein to write about sites of traditional culture.
Sitting Up Dead
Sitting Up Dead (1958) is the first novel about action hero Matt Erridge. It is set in Italy.
The poem quoted (Chapter 2) that expresses the hero's philosophy of life,
is "Could man be drunk forever" by A. E. Housman. One might note that the gay Housman was a favorite of
later gay writers, giving titles to such books as Patrick White's The Tree of Man
and Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night.
Matt Erridge links the poem to male bonding: he learned it from a Lieutenant who served
with him in World War II.
Part of Sitting Up Dead is set in the real-life town of Eboli. The novel (Chapter 3) refers to
Carlo Levi's book Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945).
Sitting Up Dead has a little of Stein's male bonding. But it has a sour tinge,
compared to the idealistic male bonding in some of his prior books.
The Original Carcase (1946) featured a young good-natured WASP rich kid, who falls in love
with his glamorous Italian-American commanding officer from World War II.
The officer is a good guy, and awesomely capable, leading to hero worship from the WASP.
This plot allowed a well-to-do WASP to look up to a low social status, but gifted,
Italian-American good guy, reversing the traditional and very bad social hierarchies of the time.
In Sitting Up Dead, Matt Erridge is a hero with a WASP name and a glamorous well-to-do life.
And he has a friendship with an Italian-American he first meets in the service in World War II.
But there is little admirable about the Italian-American. He is a private court-martialed out
of the service for criminal activities. After the service, the Italian-American becomes a sleazy
low level member of the Mob. Meanwhile Matt Erridge is an Army Captain and combat hero.
This whole plot plays like a dark variation on that of The Original Carcase.
More pleasing is Matt Erridge's encounter with a decent young Italian priest.
Erridge wows the priest, by giving him a ride in his sports car:
the priest has a yen for machinery. This whole scene oddly recalls a French film,
Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951),
where the suffering young priest gets a moment of joy when a young motorcyclist gives him a ride.
The hero gets a letter from his sister at the start. Brother-sister relationships are
frequent in Stein.
There is a nice passage when Matt is getting dressed to go out and meet trouble,
and he is trying to conceal a gun in his dapper Italian clothes (middle of Chapter 4).
Even in the 1950's, there is a realization that Italian clothes are some of the finest in the world.
A Lambretta driver's padded leather jacket helps identify his vehicle (Chapter 10).
Sitting Up Dead is mainly a suspense novel, or "good guy battles crime" adventure tale. But it does have a bit of mystery.
This centers on the question: "What lucrative crime are the bad guys up to, and how does it involve a priceless statue?"
This is not one of the great crime puzzles of mystery fiction, but it is pleasant to think about,
and involves some of Stein's vivid writing evoking Italian locations.
The puzzle goes through stages:
SPOILER: The solution centers on archaeology, which is vividly described (Chapter 10).
This links Sitting Up Dead to the Tim and Elsie archaeology-mystery series Matt Erridge replaced.
Some Tim and Elsie books have mystery subplots about mysterious archaeological artifacts,
such as the golden cockerel statue in Three - With Blood.
The statue in Sitting Up Dead plays a somewhat similar role,
although there is not a specific mystery puzzle tied to the statue itself,
the way there is to the golden cockerel in Three - With Blood.
- The first encounter with the building a crook lives in, and the statue (second half of Chapter 4,
first half of Chapter 5). The building with its scaffolding recalls the Golden Age interest in architecture.
- More about the behavior of Renata during her night with the hero (end of Chapter 7, middle of Chapter 9).
The end of Chapter 7 also contains some dramatic writing.
- The solution to the puzzle (Chapter 10). SPOILER. The solution gives some new insights into the behavior of the criminals,
that makes their actions seem slightly different from how they first appeared.
It ties three different actions into an underlying hidden criminal activity.
This sort of "re-interpretation of actions" is a standard, admirable kind of mystery puzzle and solution.
In addition to archaeology, Chapter 10 also has a fun description of multi-colored farm machinery.
The whole chapter is highly visual, allowing the reader to "see" the events.
The above mystery plot sections contain the best writing in Sitting Up Dead, with their mystery puzzle,
architecture, and archaeological background.
Towards the book's end (middle of Chapter 11), there is a solution to a second mystery puzzle:
which of the book's crooks is the "big boy", i.e. head of the crime operation?
This is pretty mild, but it does draw on putting together pieces of the story,
and interpreting them in a new way, as a history of the big crook's involvement.
This simple mystery shows Stein's attempt to preserve a who-done-it structure in the novel.